Many of us have felt isolated over the past couple of years as the country was plunged into lockdowns. But what if you lived on one of the most remote places on Earth, population 548. Vaimoana Mase talks to a woman who left New Zealand to live on a tiny atoll.
Peki Teata Lepaio lives on the smallest of three islands that make up one of the remotest countries in the world - Tokelau.
There is one hospital and one doctor on each of the three atolls: Fakaofo, Nukunono and the smallest, Atafu.
The speed limit for anyone who has a vehicle is 10km/h.
In the last population count, in 2019, the total resident population that included those who were in nearby Samoa that night was 1647.
On the atoll where Lepaio lives with her husband, Poni, the official population count was 548 residents.
Peki Lepaio, 34, was born in the small Pacific nation but left for New Zealand with her family when she was just a baby.
She grew up in Wellington, where she went to primary school and intermediate before attending high school at Porirua College.
"You know us Pacific Islanders. The whole reason as to why we moved to New Zealand when we were young was because my grandparents were there.
"So when they passed away, around about that time my other siblings had moved to Australia and they wanted my mum [Tagi Teata] there with them too."
Lepaio's father, Iona Teata, was back in the motherland and that would eventually result in his daughter's decision to move back to Tokelau a few years ago.
"I actually came for a holiday to spend time with him and then this holiday led to a permanent [stay]."
Moving back to the motherland
Lepaio, a former Miss Tokelau, had a sister living on the island too, but she had just had a baby and was starting to raise a family of her own.
So Lepaio decided she should then be the one to help care for their dad.
"I made the decision from there to stay back. It wasn't an easy decision because I wanted to come back to New Zealand to continue with my studies.
"But I put that on hold because I wanted to take on this responsibility, even though I was young."
She still remembers that first year and having to adapt to her new home and the humble lifestyle and community that surrounded her.
"My first couple of months here, it was just no good - only because I just wasn't used to the lifestyle and it's such a remote island.
"You don't get the things you normally get over there in New Zealand. The boat will come maybe once a fortnight and you just don't get the essential things you normally get there."
She said it took her about two years to adapt to her new life and the locals - and there was a fair share of tears.
"I started to get used to people's nature - their sense of humour, even - because it's totally different.
"I guess making this decision to stay back has been such a blessing to me because I learned a lot in the 10-odd years I've been here - learning from your culture and also adapting to it."
Her family is originally from Fakaofo, but she now lives with her husband on Atafu.
The couple were married in 2019 - just before the world turned upside down - and have lived on Atafu for about two years.
"Oh, seriously. It's pointless to give out invitations," she laughs, saying everyone turned up.
"If you have to look at the family tree . . . it's connected. Everyone is connected to everyone, I guess. Lucky I didn't marry anyone from where I was from.
"When there's a wedding on, the community is there. When there's a funeral, the community is there and I guess everything that happens here - community is there."
She describes the work people do when there is such an event happening on the island - cooking throughout the night and waking up in the early hours of the morning to help where it is needed.
"That's what you do here. That's when our people are strong at heart, body and mind.
"It's your obligation when you're here in the islands. It's kind of the culture. You have to do the whole cooking at night, wake up from night time to morning. That's what you do here."
The couple now stay with her husband's grandparents, who raised him, and they, in turn, are now taken care of.
"We wake up, do the whole breakfast thing and then work. In between work, I'm back and forth - from work, home - trying to multi-task and see what's for lunch or dinner."
Talking about the kinds of foods they eat, she talks of fresh fruit like papaya and coconut and traditional dishes they make out of those easily-found ingredients, such as cocoa rice.
Even when supplies are low, there is always the food provided by the sea - and flour.
"So people here are forever cooking. I myself basically bake the night before - something to have the next day like hot pani [soft breads] doughnuts, bread or pancakes.
"We have a Tokelauan vegetable that is something like taro, but we call it pulaka. With fish, we have different varieties and so have different ways of cooking them.
"The inner part of the coconut - we call it uto - we have that as well on a daily basis.
"My normal diet is not an exciting one. I would basically have . . .some sort of bread and tea, if not leftovers from dinner. Lunch would look like just a cuppa with crackers. On good days I would have a cooked meal - depends on what would be in the freezer or fridge."
The couple also have a vehicle and she laughs at the disbelief when she mentions that the speed limit on the atoll is 10km/h.
If you were going 50km/h, she says, it would take about 20 minutes to drive around the whole atoll.
"We have a car, thankfully. I'm saying thankfully because nowadays, people work. So when you're going to work in the heat in work clothes, a car is very essential here," she says, laughing.
Lepaio, who has a teaching background, now works for Tokelau's education department. Asked how long her drive to work is, she roars with laughter.
"It's a two-minute drive. That sounds ridiculous, but when you are living here in the heat . . . by the time you get to work, it was a waste of time having a shower."
Sinking islands - climate change
On climate change, Lepaio acknowledges the gravity of the situation and how real it is for them. The atolls themselves are only 3m-5m above sea level.
"It's an ongoing thing here because it's real - we're seeing it. On the lagoon side, rocks are starting to fall from their sea walls. There are houses that have been demolished by the high tides and from where I'm from.
"I think Fakaofo and Nukunono are the two atolls that get hit bad. Whereas over here, it's there but it's not as bad."
Lepaio says plans are being put in place, such as replacing old seawalls and other projects such as coastline/coral planting.
Tokelau's remoteness has always meant people have gone without luxuries or regularly seeing their loved ones overseas.
But being so isolated from the world has been a huge bonus for the small island nation during these Covid-19 pandemic times; as Tokelau remains now one of the rare few places in the world to be completely free of the virus.
"We only have the one hospital and each atoll has just the one doctor. Our resources and equipment are nowhere near enough to cater if there was an outbreak."
No place like home
Reflecting on the decade she has lived in her remote motherland, Lepaio speaks about the mindset she had before arriving on the island and how that has changed.
"When I found out I was coming here and making the plans . . . I had all these goals and was trying to see whether I'd be able to do things and make some changes here.
"But once I got here, it's not as easy as you think . . . people have different mentalities here and a different nature. But I guess people who are wanting to understand or wanting to come over, it's a beautiful thing to be lending, learning, adapting and giving back - that's the main one."
She speaks of service and a community whose people help each other no matter how little they have to offer.
"It may be not be much, but even a small portion you can give to your people - it's a huge deal to the community let alone Tokelau.
"There are times when I'm like: 'Oh, I need to go for a holiday'. And then when I'm overseas, I'm automatically thinking: 'Oh, I want to go back home'.
"It's true - there's no place like home. I think this is home for me."