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Borders opened recently in New Zealand, and by that I mean domestic borders. In a country the size of California, it’s surprising to people when they hear that for the past four months we couldn’t leave the cities in which we lived. Or in our case, the island on which we live. We jumped at the chance to set foot in Auckland for a few days just before Christmas to visit Santa at the big department store, gawk at decorations, and play at some new playgrounds. Our three-year-old was thrilled, mostly about the Santa part. And Isaac and I were excited to see what it felt like to live an urban life for a few days after being off the grid for the past few months.

Within an hour of setting foot in the concrete jungle, I remembered how stressful parenting two energetic kids can be in a city. Watch out for that, don’t touch that, hold my hand a car is coming! But it was exhilarating to be in the bustle of things, with trucks and people everywhere. Our kids were giggling and running circles around our airbnb the first night. “I do miss the city sometimes,” Isaac and I said to each other as we loaded the dishwasher (!!) and tossed our clothes in the washer and then the dryer (!!).

Our gorgeous Airbnb

We stayed down by the aqueduct, which is a happening nighttime scene, and a calm yachter’s paradise by day. I popped the kids in the stroller and we walked the waterfront to the grocery store – I have missed being able to walk to the supermarket. We stopped for ice cream and explored the park, where other kids ran around and adults exercised. It all felt familiar, like visiting the best parts of a past life for a few days.

But our visit to Santa was overwhelming (the 30 minutes waiting in line didn’t help). It was impossible to find kid-friendly places to eat, so by the last night we had decided to cook for ourselves and sit on the balcony, which faced multiple other apartments and felt a little like a stage. I prayed no one had been looking when our supposedly potty-trained toddler dropped his pants on the balcony’s fake turf grass for a pee. “No, that’s not real grass, you can’t pee on it like at home!” I whisper-yelled as I swept him to the bathroom.

On the day we planned to leave, we were all so exhausted that we called the airline to get on an earlier flight. “I’m ready to go back to the island,” I said to Isaac, who agreed. Before we left, I put all the clothes we’d brought through the hot washer and dryer, making them fluffier than we’re used to now, and we set off for home.

Stepping back into life off the grid felt familiar and relaxing, even if it is so much more work. During the cooler months of the year, power is a problem as our solar panels struggle to get enough sun to keep up. But now that it’s summer, water is the issue. A few days after coming back, I woke up early with our youngest and went to the kitchen to make some tea. The faucet sputtered and dripped, but nothing came out.

Normally when this happens, it means the smaller pressurized tank which flows into our faucets is empty and just needs to be refilled from the massive rainwater collection tank on the property. But this time, even that massive tank was empty. We were really out of water. Isaac jumped in the car with one of the 7 litre jars I use for brewing kombucha and drove down the driveway to the creek to fill it up. “This should get us through the morning,” he said walking in and thunking it down on the counter. Did I mention our life is a little like camping?

It’s not unheard of to run out of water here in the summers. But it’s early for it to be happening. We just haven’t had a good rain in weeks, and there are still baths to be taken, laundry to wash, and a garden to water. Thankfully, we have access to the creek that runs down the valley behind our house. The watershed is big enough that it doesn’t run dry, and any farms or pastures are all downstream. We can run a generator to power a pump from there up to the tank (below).

We spent half a day troubleshooting the old pump when it didn’t work as expected. Isaac walked the line of piping from the house to the creek through the forest to see if there was a leak, which there was. He fixed the pipe and we pumped water up all day. When I turned on the tap and clear water gushed out, I was thrilled. (We should probably filter it but we don’t. No one has gotten sick to date, and Isaac’s family has used this system for decades.)

We aren’t the only ones in this position right now on the island. A big tank truck pulled up at the creek yesterday and pumped full from the bottom of our driveway, filling up to take it to other islanders who had also run dry. Everyone on the island is affected equally by the weather out here, rich or poor. The environment is an equalizer of sorts when you're off the grid.

Getting water ready for bath time

Having the water off all day while we filled the tank meant that there was none in our system for the solar power to heat. So, when bath time came around for our kids, who were salty and sandy from a day at the beach, I put both our tea kettles and some pots of water on the stove to boil. After three rounds of boiling and refilling, I had enough hot water in the tub to call the kids inside for bath time.

On days like this, Isaac and I often comment on how much like camping this is. Infrastructure creates an invisible ease in modern life. The romance of most of this has worn off, if there was any, but for some reason I still wouldn’t trade it for life in an apartment in a busy city. When we want to see Santa or walk to the grocery store, we can always go for a visit.

Happily back on the island

Try as I might, I just can’t get it to feel like Christmas around here. The air is muggy with summer’s heat and the days are long. We’re making popsicles instead of hot cocoa, and eating salads for dinner because it’s too hot to fire up the stove to bake anything. Besides the white blossoms on the manuka trees that blanket the valleys like snow this time of year, this is as far from a winter wonderland as you can get. I’m just not used to holidays in the Southern Hemisphere.

Manuka blossoms and stick insects – it's truly summer here

Nonetheless, Christmas came early for me when a cheap bike I’d ordered two months ago finally arrived on the island. With our old bikes from San Francisco due to arrive in early 2022 when our container of belongings gets here, I was desperate for some wheels of my own. Minutes after screwing on the pedals and handlebars, I was whizzing down the quiet country road to go meet Isaac and the kids at the cafe. Biking allows one to see things you miss when you’re in a car, like the queen anne’s lace flowering along the road and the blackberries turning to early fruit in the ditches. Insects buzzed, cows stuck to the shade. I crested the hill and looked down the east side of the island at the waves and mountains. It was one of many moments I have here where I pinch myself as I think, “I live here.”

I’ve had a lot of those moments lately. We took the kids camping for the first time this past weekend. Despite the campground being ten minutes drive from our house, the effort was monumental and the kids didn’t sleep well at all (so neither did I). It’s sand fly season and the minuscule buggers bite like nothing else, having evolved to tear into tough bird’s feet before humans arrived on these islands. I’d look over to see blood running down our kids’ legs or arms from bites they had scratched into wounds. But I walked out to the nearby beach in the morning with the kids, where dolphins were leaping and splashing in the distance. They sat on the sand whining, uninterested in the dolphins, while I dove into the clear and unseasonably warm water. For a few moments I floated in the water, delighted, and had that thought – this is where I live. Wow.

We were camping with several other families from the island that we’ve gotten to know in the past few months, and it was exciting to feel like we’re part of the community. There is a uniqueness to each family here, partly because everyone is living life on the road less travelled, so to speak. One family is fixing up a boat so they can move onto it full-time with their four kids. Another family is setting off to go sailing for a year with their 4-year-old, and another grows or forages nearly all their own food. A few families are in the midst of purchasing different plots of land to build off-the-grid homes or shelters, much like us.

Back in San Francisco, I read about families like these who were living unusual lives – digital nomads with kids, families who lived on boats or buses, and parents who built their own odd homes in strange places. Looking around the circle of parents and kids we were camping with, it hit me that I am surrounded by people like that now. And it hit me that we are like that ourselves now.

I’ve had a few moments in my life where I’ve paused and realized that I was exactly who I’d wanted to be. The last time I felt that way was when we were traveling in an RV for six weeks in 2020 with the kids. Riding my new bike down the valley through a summer wonderland this week was another of those moments. We have forged a strange path that is right for us, and I’m who and where I want to be.

That said… if I could magically transport myself to the Northern hemisphere for a week I would, just so I could sip mulled wine beside a cozy fire, bake cookies that wouldn’t melt immediately in the heat, and watch holiday movies featuring weather that felt relatable. So to all of you up there in that colder part of the globe, please do and enjoy all those festive things! Perhaps we’ll do a second Christmas in June here for the solstice, just to get a taste of that coziness I miss. And why not – life is a story to make up as you see fit.

Our driftwood tree covered in pohutukawa branches

This little guy uses 800 watts to make my bread warm.

We had just put the kids to bed the other night when suddenly the house went eerily quiet. The fridge stopped humming, the kids’ noise machines switched off, and the few lights we had on went dark. The power had gone out. It had been overcast all day, and the charge in the solar battery that runs our household had dipped low enough to shut off. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, and certainly not the last. Such is life when you run 100% on your own solar power.

In this instance, we powered up the generator and burned some fossil fuels (gas is $9.16 USD a gallon on the island) to get enough power to float us through the evening. Other times we wait until the sun comes up again, warming the panels with its rays, revving up our wifi and lights again. But no matter how much sun there is, we’re always looking at how many watts each little thing is sucking up, never leaving a light on, and using the microwave and toaster sparingly.

In fact, the toaster itself is a luxury, and is our most power-hungry appliance. Plenty of folks on the island toast their bread on a metal frame over the gas burner, but we love toast too much. So when we arrived in New Zealand I set about finding the lowest wattage toaster I could. Turns out the cheap ones are the best for that, clocking in at 800 watts (a noise machine uses 5 watts, a vitamix uses 1400 watts, and a dryer uses 1800 - 5000 watts for reference). Picking out the toaster was the beginning of my awakening to how much power we actually use.

Back in the US when we lived “on the grid”, power was an after-thought. We’d leave our internet running all night while we slept, and lights along our stairwell glowed 24 hours a day. We used the dryer for every load of washing we did. Sometimes I would run a space heater to warm up the kids’ rooms in the winter. And, we’d run a fan all night simply for the white noise it provided. Without even realising it, we were gobbling up massive amounts of electricity in our old life. And we didn’t even have a TV (or a Vitamix).

Solar panels run our entire electrical system.

I remember kayaking up in the Pacific Northwest once with orcas spouting off in the distance. Our guide explained the orca population had declined rapidly in recent decades. When we asked why, he said, “because we all like to watch our big screen TVs and turn on all our appliances.” What he meant was that the rivers all around had been dammed to create electricity, causing salmon populations to dwindle and the orcas to starve. My clothes dryer back home was literally killing killer whales.

Our way of life has changed now that we have to produce our own power off the grid, and it's made us "walk the walk" more in terms of thinking about the planet. We’d never dream of putting an incandescent bulb in one of our light fixtures. We carefully measured how much our new wifi system uses (less than they advertised!), and run it on a timer so that it shuts off overnight. We often read by headlamp in the evenings, and I can’t imagine using a clothes dryer now (even though sometimes I miss the convenience). As I mentioned previously, I don’t know anyone who uses a hair dryer on the island. And of course we have a gas oven, hard as they are to find (electric ovens eat up A TON of power!). There are almost no lights on across the island at night, making it a “dark-sky sanctuary” sought after for its star-gazing.

A prime sunny spot of hillside for our future solar panels

All of this has been on our minds as we ordered the solar panels we’ll need for our new house. It’s the first thing we plan to install. With electricity on our building site we’ll be able to use power tools, and we can route the excess power down to our current house so that we’ll be able to run a fan on hot nights without worrying we’ll drain the battery (luxury). Our system arrives in a few weeks, and Isaac has been working diligently to get ready for installation.

It’s hard to take anything for granted here, and so I’m filled with gratitude for the mundane things we enjoy each day thanks to electricity and the sun. A hot shower. Butter melting on a warm piece of toast. A glass of cold kombucha from the fridge. A fully-charged cell phone. It's less convenient to live this way by far. But if given the chance, I don’t know if I’d go back. I feel good that our family’s carbon footprint is lighter here, and I like knowing we generated all the power we use.

And, I like the orcas too much. Isaac and the kids saw one at our nearby beach the other day, and the frequent the harbour on the other side of the island. I’ll happily dry my clothes on the line for their sake.

Hanging clothes to dry

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