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Lessons living in 55 square feet, 6,500 miles from home

Shaandiin and Jacy in New Zealand

The intrepid author and her traveling companion, near Queenstown, New Zealand, in front of the Remarkables mountain range.

Shaandiin Cedar

If you’d told me in December that in a few months I’d be hunkered down with eight other travelers in a foreign country due to the spread of a global pandemic, I’d laugh and advise to ease up on the doomsday sci-fi movies.

But here I am, equipped with newly acquired sustainable travel tips, lockdown survival wisdom and a renewed dedication to and sense of clarity around transitioning to a clean and equitable economy. You know, the kind of stuff you pick up during downtime.

On New Year’s Eve, my partner Jacy and I said goodbye to the San Francisco Bay Area and kia ora to Aotearoa, New Zealand. After months of planning the time had come to realize our van life travel dream and dive headfirst into adventure mode, documenting insights and highlighting advocacy work on social media. I wanted to bring my whole self — sustainability professional, Navajo tribal member, outdoor industry advocate and former member of the powerhouse GreenBiz team — to the adventure.

The grand plan was to live life on the road, exploring, cooking good food and working remotely. On Jan. 10, after a week of secondhand van shopping in Auckland, we hit the road in our new tiny home, a 2008 Fiat Ducato, complete with 225 watts of solar, two wet-cell batteries, an 88-liter freshwater tank, gas stove, shower and toilet.

It's been interesting to view the past five months in hindsight. Who could have guessed the unique circumstances we’d be dropped into?

Why New Zealand? Well, for an outdoors woman and climber, it’s a natural paradise as well as a playground. If you ever needed to fall in love with nature again, New Zealand will cast a very strong spell over you. It is the type of place that plays the full-length, un-sped-up versions of songs on the radio — that is, if you can get a signal. Life ticks at a slower pace, and the view at every bend is stunning.

It's been interesting to view the past five months in hindsight. Who could have guessed the unique circumstances we’d be dropped into?

Not-so-sustainable

From January to mid-March, the trip was everything we expected. We worked our way through the beautiful, off-grid campsites in the North Island. Lots of sun, Kindle recharges and time spent with a broom, cleansing the van of beach sand.

During this portion of the journey, we quickly learned what it means for two people to live in less than 55 square feet. In such a small space, everything you do is magnified. All your habits, good and bad, are brought to the surface.

As someone who identifies as a sustainable-living sustainability professional, van life revealed the awkward truth that I’m not as green or organized as I thought, that I generate a lot of unnecessary food and nonrecyclable waste as well as avoidable recyclable material. While we contributed to local rainforest carbon offset projects to help manage our carbon footprint, it became clear that if we wanted to continue traveling in a meaningful way, we’d have to do a total reexamination and adjustment of our habits, embrace the challenge and make some changes.

Here are some things we implemented.

Before heading to the grocery store, we started to meal plan and optimize ingredients, buying just the right amount of groceries to fit in our mini-refrigerator and single food shelf. We learned to maximize our water usage to avoid frequent fill-up stops, using as little water as possible to wash dishes and bathe, with the same squeaky-clean effect. To reduce packaging waste, we started shopping at "bring your own container" bulk stores for items such as rice, pasta, trail mix, spices, honey and dish soap. We started to line-dry laundry and prioritized shopping at the many "op-shops," New Zealand's thrift stores, to buy items such as silverware and extra mugs. 

We also learned to monitor how much energy we use, an entirely new exercise. During the day, we charge our batteries, which allows us to run our mini-fridge as well as to heat and pump water to the sink and shower. In the evening, the batteries are used solely for powering the refrigerator overnight, which means if you want a hot shower and light to see what you’re doing you must plan ahead and make sure all that is done before sunset. Inevitably, you forget and get stuck with a cold shower in the dark that reiterates the value and luxury of electric power and hot water on demand.

We were more efficient, economical and organized, the Marie Kondo of zero-waste van life.

It wasn’t until about Day 30 in the van that we felt like we had formulated a solid routine to live effectively and comfortably in such a small space. We were more efficient, economical and organized, the Marie Kondo of zero-waste van life.

Back in our apartment in Oakland, while I always tried to conserve water and limit waste, I never really ventured to quantify just how much I used. Even if I had, I don’t think many people would fully grasp the sheer volume of it all. Living off a little microgrid with finite resources you have to manually replenish makes this abundantly clear.

Getting intimate with your waste

By Day 50, we had taken the three-hour-long ferry ride across the Cook Strait, landing in the magical South Island, land of misty coastal plains, rainforest fjords, ancient glacier parks and "Lord of the Rings" mountain filming locations — also known to non-LOTR fans as the Southern Alps.

I bet when you imagine van life you picture the forests and lakes you’ll wake up to, the cozy cup of coffee in the morning and the adventures you’ll go on. Van life truly is special in these ways, but there are the less attractive elements to life on the road as well.

When you live in a van, you get intimate with your waste.

For example, the day comes when you, like a mad scientist, snap on your rubber gloves to dispose of your grey and black water at designated public dump sites. Greywater is the waste you generate from sinks, showers and things such as laundry. Blackwater is sewage waste, which, in our case, is contained in a removable cassette, similar in size and shape to a small rolling suitcase but with a hole in the top to pour its contents out. It’s a necessary but sometimes brutal chore, and I find myself wanting to personally thank all the sanitation workers out there.

Instantaneous light, warmth, unlimited drinkable water and plumbing are unveiled for the immense luxuries they are. You get to see exactly how much you’ve used with context to how much you need. When you live in a van, resources become finite again in the accounting of your mind and therefore more valuable. It’s a useful and eye-opening exercise, one that I’d argue all should experience at some point in time.

Shifting gears

I don’t think anyone knows what to expect on a trip such as this, what you will gain or how you will change. We could not predict the benefits of van life challenging our modern, on-demand, fast-paced standard of living. And we could not predict the spread of a global pandemic and the unique lessons would teach.

About two months ago, our travels were halted by the spread of the coronavirus. In the midst of having a close friend visiting us from the States, New Zealand promptly closed its borders and implemented some of the world’s most comprehensive COVID-19 shelter-in-place directives.

When the announcement was made that we’d be going into full lockdown, Jacy and I were camping near the extraordinary Castle Hill, climbing on its massive standalone rock formations. We huddled, decided to stay in New Zealand, literally and figuratively shifted gears, and hightailed it 10 hours to Queenstown. There we rented a room in a large house with three Kiwis, a Welsh couple, one Finnish woman and two Brits to wait out the travel restrictions.

From a life of constant adventure to one of stationary contemplation.

Be bold

It’s been both amusing and strange to be the Americans in the house. I find myself answering humorous questions such as "Are there really bears and mountain lions in California?" "What American fast food would I recommend?” and "Why do we call ‘chips’ fries and ‘crisps’ chips?"

I also find myself in strange territory trying to interpret headlines coming from my home country, as coverage of the United States is part of daily New Zealand news. Things such as, "Is everyone protesting lockdowns?" "How can someone just shoot a man running around his neighborhood?" or "Why are Native American people more impacted by the virus?" These questions have been harder to answer.

This last question really hit home. I have family who live on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona, a region that has more per-capita COVID-19 infections than any place outside of New York and New Jersey due to circumstances that limit access to basic resources. In particular, I worry about my 81-year-old grandmother, a community elder. I worry about her and other family members who don’t have running water in their homes or access to healthcare facilities.

Just as van life forced the reexamination of daily habits, life in lockdown forced a close reexamination of the 'normal' we are all trying to reinstate.

It’s been great to see the global rally to support the Navajo Nation, and I’ve had the privilege to organize one of the many fundraisers to send money, personal protective equipment, masks and hand sanitizer to help support volunteer efforts. But like so many other social and economic issues, the virus has spotlighted and emphasized the weaknesses in our almighty capitalistic machine.

Just as van life forced the reexamination of daily habits, life in lockdown forced a close reexamination of the "normal" we are all trying to reinstate. For the first time in a long time, we have the luxury to sit and inspect these weaknesses. We have time to explore what it means to be a sustainability professional amid a crisis like this, and what a new "normal" ought to be.

It’s Day 139 in New Zealand and these are the pressing questions on my mind: What does it say about an economy that breaks when people only buy what they need? How do we rebuild systems free from institutional racism? What will it take to unify behind policies that address both climate and future healthcare crises?

Part of me resents the notion of getting back to business as usual, as so many things are wrong with its current definition. The other part recognizes the people whose lives literally depend on its quick restoration.

After trying to process the daily headlines, opinions and analyses, I’ve come to the conclusion that in order to shape a future that is just, healthy and environmentally stable, we all — elected officials, low-level workers and CEOs alike — need to be significantly more bold. Bold in the way we imagine strong and fair economic systems in balance with ecological systems, bold in the way we transform ideas into reality, and bold in the way we bend both the COVID-19 and climate curves.

Get it done or move aside

As a young professional emerging during the age of climate change and ultra-polarized politics, the world is coming more and more into focus. And the honest truth is, I’m underwhelmed. I’m unimpressed with the slew of excuses coming from civic leadership and uninspired by progress limited by those who oppose it.  

These deficiencies also motivate me. Even amid all of the uncertainty and frustration with lackluster leadership, I'm hopeful. We’ve proven that people can change habits and act quickly on a global scale to face a common threat. In the wake of the crisis, we’re seeing forward-thinking world leaders emerge who can work across the aisle and take decisive action. In the wake of this global stress test, climate policy offers a much-desired increase in resiliency and stability, and clean energy jobs have been identified as key to economic recovery.

I'm energized, too, by all the young people who have a get-it-done-or-move-aside attitude. What’s the saying? If you want something done right, do it yourself? There’s a lot of work to be done, and all we can do is press on.

Post-lockdown to-do list

Restrictions here in New Zealand are starting to ease up, so I’m preparing for another shift of gears: Entering post-lockdown society.

Due to the country's swift response upfront, there are virtually no new cases and no community spread at this time. We’ve dropped to level-2 restrictions, which means we can travel domestically again. As such, Jacy and I are starting to plan our next — physically distanced — camping trip to enjoy the changing fall colors. We hope to glimpse one of the 13 penguin species in the country and behold the legendary Aurora Australis in the next few months.

I’m excited, too, to ramp up work on the complex tasks in front of us. Especially with U.S. elections just around the corner, I’m ready to keep our representatives accountable on climate, call out injustice and inequality and call in those who have power to have impact. I’m excited to continue my own work on quickening the just and equitable transition to a clean economy and being bold when it counts most.

With this in mind, if you need me, I’ll be here in New Zealand for the next six months, working, traveling and voting from abroad. I’ll continue to improve my personal impact and look forward to the inevitable, unexpected surprises down the road. We’re ready.

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