Whenever we’re in the car together, Isaac and I make a joke of criticising each other’s driving. Each hairpin turn is a chance to prove to the other how careful and skilled we are at navigating these narrow roads. And lately they have been busier than ever. Lockdown rules have eased up and the summer sun arrived this week. Everyone is OUT.
This is something we’d hoped for since moving here. People! Families at the beach! People at the cafe! With COVID restrictions, none of the typical tourists or vacation home owners have been allowed to come to the island (nor can residents leave), so everyone we bump into is a local.
Because the 900 permanent residents on the island are spread far and wide, people are almost always happy to chat or say hello when you bump into them. In fact, most of the time they know someone you know or grew up here with Isaac and his brothers. The place is small enough that once you’ve met someone once, you inevitably see them again – at the tiny post office where we all go to collect our packages, at the cafe, at the only gas station on our side of the island.
Knowing the names of our neighbours and the local shop owners has been enough to help us feel settled here. It’s always been like that for me wherever I have lived – once I know my neighbours and am recognised at my local coffee shop and grocery store, it feels like I really live there. Like I’m part of the place. We’re finally getting that here. It’s so nice.
A rural off-the-grid island like this attracts all kinds of people, but the common thread is that everyone is a bit strange in their own way (including us). After all, living here full time means devising some creative way of generating enough power, water, and waste disposal to survive on your own. The majority of locals aren’t rich, at least in the monetary sense. In fact, some are just getting by. But New Zealand does a fairly good job looking after its population with support and health care for everyone, so it’s possible to live on the island without a huge income. People grow their own food, make do, and help each other out. It’s a world away from the wealthy San Francisco tech scene we came from.
Everyone living here develops an island “look” after a while, it’s a hardy, weathered, relaxed one. A lot of adults and most kids – including ours – go without shoes except in the worst weather. One’s clothes get a bit muddied up and worn out living here after a while, there’s simply no way around it. Few homes have enough power to run a hairdryer, and there aren’t salons on the island. My own hair gets so tangled and messy from the beach and the wind that I wear it up every single day, combing it just twice a week.
Each person we meet has a unique story about how they ended up here. It’s my favourite question to ask when we meet someone new. Plenty of people grew up here and could never find it in their hearts to leave. Others left and came back as soon as they had kids. Some have vacationed here enough times that they finally decided to put down roots. One person arrived on a sailboat, came ashore in his dinghy to find the local real estate agent, bought a house right then and there, and hasn’t left since.
And here we are, characters in our own sense, with our own strange story. It’s taken coming here to make me realise how unconventional Isaac and I are, willing to give up the comforts of city life and the status of careers in order to live simply and cheaply in this odd part of the world. But right now there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Twisting up and down the roads here on our way to one beach or another, I can’t help but feel like I’m on vacation. The air is warm and humid, and we can go everywhere barefoot. Parrots live in our yard. Every beach or trail or creek is uncrowded and free.
While talking to another local the other day, she said people sometimes ask her what she does here on the island. Her reply is always, "What do you mean? I live." Living here, off the grid and with kids, is a full time job. But it opens something in my heart to be here, doing this. It really feels like living.