Merry Christmas!

Oh, Christmas Tree!
Oh, Christmas Tree!

Dear Friends and Family,

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! We are so thrilled to be celebrating the Holidays in America again! We’ve been enjoying our frasier fir Christmas tree, drinking plenty of eggnog, listening to festive music, and enjoying the lights and decorations of our neighbors. We’re lucky to have been able to spend Thanksgiving with Alex’s family in Missouri and will be with the Griffises in North Carolina for Christmas. There’s nothing like a couple of years away to make us appreciate our wonderful families and crazy American Holiday traditions!

Pinball Repair
Using that Electrical Engineering degree for something.

As you know, it’s been a wild and crazy year for us, but we feel really happy to be settled down in Denver now. Alex is enjoying his new web development job at Beatport, where they bring in a DJ every Friday afternoon and have happy hour in the office. He’s been biking to work just about every day and has only lost one pair of gloves in the process. Just in case the job ultimately doesn’t work out, Alex has been dabbling in alternate career options, such as: pinball repairman, bike fixer-upper, professional foosballer, and speciality crocheted monkey-clothing designer. He finally joined an ice hockey league and gym and is trying to remain modest about his two years of soviet arm-wrestling training.

Shovellin' Snow
What is this strange American custom called shoveling?

Emma did really well her first semester in the Master of Public Health program at the University of Colorado, Denver. She’s bringing joy to Christmas parties everywhere with her enlightening tales of the theory of biostatistics. She’s been biking to class and running most days. After the last two years, she has newfound appreciation for concrete sidewalks, storm drains, and people who shovel snow from their walkways. (Did we mention that we’ve had 4 big snowstorms in the last 2 months?!) Emma’s also been trying her hand at a variety of new healthy-living projects, such as homemade granola, shampoo, and deodorant.

Saying Goodbye
Saying goodbye to Ukraine

Although we’re happy to be back in the States, we really miss our friends in Sofievka. If you weren’t able to keep up with our blog (which we totally dropped mid-July—sorry!), we had a very busy last few months in Ukraine—finishing work at our schools, saying goodbye to all our friends, and frantically completing a playground project, which couldn’t have been done without an amazing amount of support from you folks back home! Anyway, we’ve had a couple of Skype conversations with some Sofievka friends, but it’s really hard to keep in touch. It’s still very surreal sometimes to realize that we were living in Ukraine just 7 months ago. (Alternately: it’s been 7 whole months?!) We continue to be very thankful that we had such a wonderful experience. It was hard and trying at times, but we’ve already gotten beyond that and now only think fondly about our time there!

More Adventure
One more adventure, this time in South-East Asia

We tried our best to have a smooth transition from Ukraine back to the US, but everything from June through August is pretty foggy! We left Ukraine (flying directly over our training site and Sofievka on the way) headed for DC, with a six-week layover in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, in order to see another awesome part of the world. The food was amazing, the beaches were beautiful, and the people were super friendly. We even got SCUBA certified! However, the bus rides were long and uncomfortable, we were living out of our backpacks, and we were pretty ready to be back in the US after 2+ years away.

Hugs
What a great country!

Once back in the States, we got to spend about a month visiting our families and hanging out with friends before we felt the pressure to get to Denver and settle down before Emma’s classes started. But, we had a seriously wonderful time visiting with our loved ones, relaxing, and enjoying American life. Many thanks to our families and the Caudles for hosting us along the way!

So, here we are, in Colorado and enjoying just about every minute of it. We’re in a lovely rental home with a guest bedroom, so we’re expecting lots of visitors in 2012. (That means YOU!) Shout outs to sisters Cara and Anna for being our first guests!

Best wishes to you and your loved ones this Holiday season. Here’s to a new year full of peace, love, and happiness!

Love,

Emma & Alex

Hangin' Out
Alex and his grandpa Rudy (in his daily overall attire) hanging out in Missouri this past summer.

Update: We found out on December 31st that Alex’s grandfather, Rudy Kunza, died. He was a real character who made friends with just about everyone he met. He turned 90 this year, and he just kept on farming – he was remarkably active and healthy till the end. He survived WW2 and many close calls with farm equipment, but apparently a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurism finally took his life. Although we are sad that Rudy’s gone and will miss him greatly, we’re thankful for the times spent on the family farm and around the kitchen table: playing cards, listening to funny stories, eating toast straight out of Rudy’s toaster, and hearing his good ol’ Missouri drawl.

 

 

2011: Our whirlwind year in exactly 100 pictures

Beautiful Rainy Laos

After spending about 24 hours on buses (minus a 30 minute layover in Bangkok), we made it all the way from southern Thailand to Vientiene, the capital of Laos, two days ago. After a decent night’s sleep in Vientiene, we decided to keep going for four more hours to Vang Vieng, a little river town farther north into Laos. It had been raining steadily since we got into Laos, so we thought maybe we’d find better weather there.

No luck! We haven’t seen the sky yet in Laos. From what we can see through the rain, Vang Vieng is a beautiful place. There are huge limestone mountain outcroppings that are just barely visible on the other side of the town’s river. Normally, the many tourists spend their time here tubing down the river and exploring nearby caves, which would be amazing. Unfortunately, the river is super swollen so that tubing would be ridiculously unsafe, and we weren’t allowed to cross the bridge to get to the caves on the other side. Instead, we spent our day today wandering the streets of this little town, watching “Family Guy” episodes at a nearby restaurant, relaxing with a Lao beer on our deck overlooking the river, and surfing Facebook. So, kind of a bust, but hey, we’re relaxing in Laos, so life can’t be too bad!

We’ll cross our fingers for better weather tomorrow. Either way, we’ll probably head back to Vientiene by Tuesday (hopefully with a clear day or two to explore that city) and from there over into Cambodia via Bangkok.

Beaches, SCUBA, flip flops, fevers, and more

It’s hard to believe that we’re almost half-way through our trip already!

Basically, we’ve had:
-3 days in Bangkok
-over night train to southern Thailand (Surat Thani)
-3 full days on the northeast side of Ko Pha-ngan (ferry to and from the island), relaxing on the beach
-two day trip across Thailand to the west coast, with an unsuccessful detour to Kao Sak national park
-day in Kao Lak, which is totally shut down this time of year because of weather, but enjoying a small street festival
-day in Krabi, trying to figure out scuba diving, eating street food at the night market
-week+ in Ao Nang, taking scuba lessons, relaxing on the beach, with a few days break due to bad diving weather and bed rest for Emma who had a bit of a fever

Besides the fever, we’ve had a good time here in Ao Nang. We spent two days getting educated all about scuba diving and practicing in a local pool and then got to go to the Phi Phi Islands to put our new skills to practice. Although a little nerve wracking at first and a little counter-intuitive, it is pretty amazing to be able to breathe and move around so freely underwater. Unfortunately, the weather’s not the best for diving this time of year and visibility was poor, but we got to see lots of cute little Nemo clownfish, bright blue sea stars, a crown-of-thorns starfish, a moray eel, a lionfish, some giant-caterpillar-type sea cucumbers, and the back of a sea turtle as it swam away! We were lucky to have a great instructor, Terry, who taught us the number one rule of diving: look cool! I don’t know if we succeeded, but we’ll keep working on it!

You never know with this kind of traveling, but hopefully we’ll be in Laos a couple of days from now. We’ll take an overnight bus up to Bangkok today, then probably another overnight bus to the Laos border the next night. Fingers crossed everything goes smoothly. In Laos, the plan is to spend a few days each in Vientiane, Vang Vieng, and Luang Prabang. If we have the chance, we may go for a ride on the Mekong River.

Finally, we got some photos uploaded! Enjoy!