Almost always the only ones at the beach

It took a while for me to figure out where to get my news here. Scrolling the homepage of the NYTimes or listening to daily news summaries from NPR told me nothing I really needed to know. That is, nothing about New Zealand’s ever-changing lockdown and COVID dramas.

When we arrived here in July, every Kiwi except staff of the managed quarantine program were living blissfully in a pre-2020 era of concerts and dinner parties and maskless grocery shopping. After yo-yoing through a year and a half of closures and distanced outdoor hangouts with friends in SF, we were excited to breeze into this pre-pandemic world. But of course, two days after clearing MIQ and arriving at our new home, Covid slipped into New Zealand. And this time they couldn’t stamp it out.

Since then, the headlines here are all pandemic-related. We tune the radio to RNZ’s news summaries multiple times a day. The number one piece of news is always how many reported new cases there are and where, followed closely by what percentage of the population have gotten vaccinated. At a distant third place are any other breaking news stories, like about people who’ve escapes quarantine, people who’ve been caught disobeying lockdown rules, or the latest rugby match score. We hang on the Covid and vaccine numbers day to day, knowing our social freedom hangs on them too.

New Zealand aims to have 90% of the eligible population vaccinated before opening schools or dining (even outdoors) or shops again. And each week the number of cases rises and the percentage of vaccinated folks slows. So here we are, living the pandemic all over again, seemingly from square one. School are closed and kids have been home for months now with no end in sight. Teachers are nervous to go back to school. Parents working from home are slowly going insane. Businesses are closing and people are losing their jobs. Sounds pretty familiar to me. Everyone is getting more and more frustrated, and even as case numbers climb people are increasingly tempted to break the rules and socialise.

I don’t blame them. I’m tempted too, ready to sit and enjoy our treats at the cafe rather than in the car, and plan playdates with anyone willing to get together. Vaccination is such a touchy topic here, and hesitation to get it so prolific, that you daren’t bring it up in conversation with anyone whose stance you don’t already know. I made that mistake once in small talk with an acquaintance and learned my lesson.

Isaac and I are, of course, vaccinated. We had no hesitation about it after living pandemic life for a year and a half – it was the way back to normalcy for us, our kids, and all of our friends. Unfortunately, we have moved to a place where we get to re-live what we went through in SF last year all over again. Sound maddening? It is.

Another beach all to ourselves.

Every couple of nights after the kids go to bed, we sip tea in the kitchen after doing the last of the dishes and hang our heads in loneliness and frustration. Loneliness because we haven’t been able to make friends with many people at all since moving here, and frustration because the country’s response to Covid seems to have learned little from all the mistakes and trial-and-error the rest of the world went through in 2020.

The social isolation brought on by the pandemic is just one of the woes. We just got word that timber and other supplies we need for our house project are not going to be available until after Christmas, due to Covid-related shipping and production issues. And our container of worldly belongings is still stuck in San Francisco, there simply aren’t any ships coming this way across the Pacific anymore. A few weeks ago I had to ask family and friends to stop mailing anything our way – postal service between NZ and the US is simply not possible right now, with so few planes and boats going back and forth. Kiwis are already stocking up Christmas gifts for fear there won’t be much on the shelves in December.

I knew moving overseas would be difficult, and prepared myself accordingly with pep talks and promises to FaceTime those we love back in the States. I was ready to put myself out there to meet new friends, find kids for our children to play with, and build new routines to replace the cafe visits and playground dates we loved back in SF. But all this has made it more difficult than I could have imagined. Those evenings with Isaac in the kitchen always end with us hugging, then me looking to the ceiling and begging the universe to please let this run its course as quickly as possible. I want to stay here, but not like this. We need more normalcy in our life after already putting in a year and a half of social isolation. We need people.

There was some good news on the radio this week. Auckland’s vaccination rate is the highest in the country. Being the closest city to our island, we follow their lockdown rules. People are hopeful by Christmas we’ll be able to leave the island and others will be able to come here. We might be able to sit down at the cafe to drink our flat whites rather than take them to go. Our kids might get to go to PlayCentre and frolic on the playground with peers. Our extended family who live in NZ might be able to visit us. Maybe. We’ll see. For now I’m drinking my tea, looking at the ceiling, and hoping.

I haven’t posted in a while and have meant to. Our landscape work to level the building site is almost done, the new driveway has gravel on it now, and I’ve thought a lot about what it feels like to have swapped my decade-long career in tech for a role as caregiver and homemaker in such a remote place (short answer: great!). But when I penned a lot of these updates and thoughts to this blog, just as I was about to publish it something glitched and the work was all lost. Any writer's nightmare. So without the time or heart to re-write everything I’d put together, here are some images and short updates.

I carried the kids over the rocks to a remote little bay south of the beach we usually go to and spent a morning playing in the low tide. Despite it being Saturday, we had the place to ourselves. When you go on vacation, you dream of having a private beach all to yourself for a week before heading back to the crowded place you came from. But when you live in that remote and gorgeous place, you cross your fingers there will be other people or families there to share the sand and waves with you. The kids have a great time nevertheless, people or (usually) no people.

Our digger finished clearing the site, and we can really imagine where the house will go now. We cleared a flat spot for our container where a mosquito pond used to be. At this rate though, our container of belongings likely won’t get here until 2022, given the shipping crisis worldwide. When it does though, it’ll be great as storage, and eventually we can turn it into a sleep-out for guests.

Next up is pouring the foundation, getting our house materials delivered, and starting on the work of actually building. Isaac has polished up the plans and we love what has come together. We can’t wait to get started.

Now, fingers crossed I don't lose any blog posts ever again. 🤞

Updated: Oct 23, 2021

In all our previous visits to the island, I never got behind the wheel of a car here. It was partly the driving-on-the-left thing, but mostly the terrifying roads, which made me insist Isaac drive. There's not a single stoplight on the entire island, nor are there lines on the barely-two-cars-wide roads. They hairpin around impossible bends up and down the rugged hills, and if you don't hug your side of the road closely enough when an oncoming car barrels down on you, you'll be toast.

After several weeks of winding around the island in our minivan, I'm getting confident as an island driver. Any near misses with other cars have been mostly because passing drivers all tend to give a quick wave as they pass, and it took me a while to master how to lift a hand from the steering wheel to return the gesture while avoiding a head-on collision. I finally figured out how to lift a few fingers off the wheel in an effortfully casual manner and still maintain control of the car. But I wasn't prepared when we came around a blind bend and there was a cow in the middle of the road.

I slammed on the brakes in shock and she trotted out of the way just in time. The land rose steeply on one side of the road and dropped away on the other. It was thickly forested on both sides, so there was really nowhere she could go to get away from us but straight down the road. And that's exactly what she did. I tried gingerly to sneak around her and she trotted forward. We ended up driving behind her for longer than I wanted to before she finally stood aside long enough for me to pass. Up ahead was another cow with whom we played the game all over again. My toddler thought it was hilarious. We finally managed our way around the second cow and drifted down to the bakery for a treat. We ate our sausage rolls and cookies, the kids splashed in mud puddles until they were soaked, and I marvelled at how different our life is now. I'm sure we'll bump into dozens of cows in the road as we continue to live here and it won't even be noteworthy soon enough. But for now these rural occurrences are odd enough for the city girl in me to marvel at and laugh about.

The marvel of the week for our kids was the digger we hired to come over and get our house site ready for building. We heard it rattling up the steep gravel driveway and ran out in our gumboots to greet it. Our toddler was beside himself, explaining to us what each part of the machine was called. "Mama, this is called the arm! And these are hydraulics!" It was perhaps the best day of his life.

In just a few hours the road up to our site was cleared, and after two days our house site was nearly done. We hammered in some batter boards to lay out a string line for the house and deck, which will be used to measure out where we need to dig holes for our foundation posts.

I've never built a house and at times feel like we are way over our head. But after watching YouTube for 20 minutes and figuring out my father-in-law's levelling machine, I was able to go up on my own and get half our batter boards up. It gives me confidence that we'll be able to do this (thanks YouTube!).

The kids hammered and dug in the piles of dirt yesterday evening as Isaac and I put up our last batter boards before dinner. We stood where the future deck of our house will be and looked out. It felt real and good. And overwhelming. There's so much to do before we can actually stand on that deck together, living our dream.

But I want to remember that the process of building the life we imagined for ourselves actually is the dream, in many ways. There's no end point, really. The moving and the adjusting and the building and the learning to drive, each step is part of it. And so far each step has felt right, even if it's hard, and reminds me we're on the right path. Even if there are cows in the way sometimes.

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