The Christmas Letter

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Merry Christmas, all! Too often I start these blog posts with (queuing Eeyore voice), “Oh boy, it’s been a long time since I’ve written…” But it’s Christmastime. I’m not going to make excuses, or set unachievable goals for future posts. Instead, I’m going to treat this post like those one-paged snowman-and-snowflake-bordered Christmas letters that are so popular this time of year. We’ll call it The Kraegel Update. Let’s start from the beginning:

Australia | Feb. 2014. Sam likes to share with people, especially fellow USAID employees, that this is the first “Developed” (i.e. not “Developing”) country that I’ve travelled to. This is true. In fact, all of the countries that I’d been to before Australia are major hubs for USAID’s international mission. Not because I have a bleeding heart, but because I’ve always had a virtually empty wallet.

Regardless of its “Developed” status, Australia was like a dream for me. Not entirely by design, the whole trip was about animals: petting animals, swimming with animals, feeding animals, hoping not to be eaten by animals. Sam captured this best when he took a picture of me, smiling idiotically, holding a plastic cup of corn meal, and surrounded by wallabies and kangaroos eager to push their faces into my cup. (You’ll see one of these greedy roos below.)

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The Terror of Temerlik Gorge | May 2014. What began as a three-day, two-night camping adventure on the Kazakh steppe ended up as a frustrating week-long ordeal.

In fairness, the first stop on this trip was Tuz-Kul (which means “salt lake” in Kazakh), where I was able to take some of the most beautiful pictures that I’ve taken in Kazakhstan to-date.

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The next morning, after an easy drive back in the direction of Almaty, we dipped into a branch of Charyn Canyon (the “Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan”), and set up camp at a beautiful little spot called Temerlik. This shady refuge is an absolute hidden gem; an oasis in every literal sense of the word. Typical camping activities ensued.

It wasn’t until we tried to make our ascent out of the canyon the next afternoon that we realized we had made a terrible mistake. With some trouble, two of the three cars in our caravan made it out of the canyon, but my and Sam’s front-wheel-drive RAV4, well, didn’t.

We split up our group: three headed into town to find helpthough everyone they asked ended up being too suspicious or drunk to offer any assistancewhile the remaining five spent four hours moving stones and pushing our stubborn car by hand a pathetic 75 feet up the canyon road (which seemed to be made of golf balls and talcum powder—how did we even get into this canyon in the first place?). We still had more than 300 feet to go. Long story short, Purdy the RAV4 spent a couple of nights deep in the Kazakh dessert, far, far from home.

A few days later, Sam and one of our duty drivers drove 300km back into the dessert. First, they picked up a few members of the Kazakh Ministry of Extraordinary Situations (yup, that’s the real translation). Then, they gathered the requisite two drunk dudes with filthy shirts from the nearest town who wanted to watch an ancient Soviet UAZ haul our sad, modern car out of the canyon in less than 15 minutes. You can see Sam celebrating below.

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The silver lining to this dark cloud is that Sam got to see an extremely rare white bactrian camel and its white camel-baby on his way to the canyon.

Andrea & Will Come to Kazakhstan! | Aug. 2014. Let it be known that Andrea and Will win the friend award. Watching them walk towards us through customs at the Almaty airport was one of the happiest moments in my time here. Aside from the obvious fun of playing tour guide, their visit allowed me to see our wacky life through fresh eyes. Had life overseas changed us? Worse yet: what if it hadn’t?

The overwhelming verdict was that we (but especially I) had become more fearless. While both Sam and I knew this on some level, it was reassuring to hear it from friends who knew us so well before our overseas adventure began. Even more? It was a relief to realize that we no longer needed to fake it (confidence, self-assurance, whatever…)—Almaty? Yeah, we got that.

The Kregors Leave Almaty | Oct. 2014. This isn’t really our life event to write about, but it was certainly one of those “shit that you have to deal with in the Foreign Service” events. Matt and Megan were our first and closest friends in Almaty. They left Kazakhstan on October 1 for sunnier shores (literally—they moved to Sacramento, CA). They’ve already been added to the Skype roster (but Almaty hasn’t been quite the same for us without them).

Russia | Oct. 2014. I’m a little embarrassed to say now that Sam and I expected Russia to be the dreary, post-soviet, Kafka-esque dystopia that we all imagine it to be. We have never been more wrong. Russia is a beautiful country with solid, stoic, hard-working people who loved hearing our story. (It didn’t hurt that we knew a little Russian.) Believe it or not, Russians and Americans are super-duper similar. Turns out propaganda is a sneaky little bitch, folks—I don’t care how smart you are, you’re not smart enough to see through it. A major idea, echoed again and again throughout the trip? Politics are not the same as people.

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Sarah Starts a Business | Nov. 2014. Welcome to The Art Room! Here, kids ages 3 – 14 enjoy one-on-one drawing, painting, and printmaking classes while learning the basics of visual art, visual culture, and art history. Art is for kids of all ages! Art helps young children nurture their innate creativity and develop fine motor skills; in older children, art helps build self-confidence and problem-solving skills. (Want to know a little more? Click here.)

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Sam Gets Assigned | Dec. 2014. There is something about knowing that you will leave a place that makes you fall out of love with it. Like any flesh-and-blood relationship, you know when it’s over: the slow dwindling of affections, the general malaise and disinterest, the reluctance to return phone calls…

In all seriousness, Sam and I went through a falling-out-of-love phase with Almaty in late August. The first bid list had just been released, and suddenly the world (well, a handful of select locations throughout the world, anyway) opened up to us. Why would we stay in Almaty when we had Lima, Tbilisi, or Accra to set our sights on? The flirting began.

But it didn’t last long. After a series of conversations with his fellow contracting officers, and a major reality check, he (we) realized that staying in Almaty was actually our very best possible option: it’s one of the nicest posts that USAID has to offer; we love each of the four seasons—especially for the camping, hiking, and skiing; we love our apartment; I have a job with the consulate, and was just getting my art-teaching business up and running; but best of all—we wouldn’t have to pack up our lives again this spring. Sam bid Kazakhstan number one; they bid him number one. Then the waiting began.

There is something about knowing that you will stay in a place that makes you fall back in love with it, too. Today marks exactly 19 months since Sam and I left the Unites States. Even with the various daily frustrations that we experience in Kazakhstan, we’ve come to appreciate it for what it is. Kazakhstan is our comfy, long-term relationship.

After a significant amount of waiting and hoping and crossing fingers (and then anger because we might have to start the whole bidding process over again…), Sam’s name appeared next to his desired position on the assignment list. So, for those of you who haven’t visited us yet in Central Asia, you have plenty of time to plan your trip—we’ll be living here until May 2017.

Wishing you all a merry, bright, and peaceful holiday season!
Sarah & Sam, Hank & Mishka

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