Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Thaw

Global warming has most certainly taken hold here in Siberia, to which I say ... about time!  It may eventually flood all you guys in Florida, but here it can't be anything but good! ;-)

Anyway, after a particularly warm winter (only -40s for one week!) we have had a really, really early spring.  Where we're normally just starting to melt in mid-April, this year we could see parts of the ground as early as the first week of March and the last of the snow melted by the 20th or so.  We've had sweater weather for about 2 weeks now!

All of which means we can do things like take the boys out for a walk, which we usually try to end down by the cafe we like to eat at:

And, of course, it wouldn't be spring if we didn't go outside and play a bit of footy.  Both the boys are now enrolled in a class at the local football club, where they go to practice 3 times/week.  They're both pretty new to it and still figuring out what to do, but Steven in particular is starting to get the hang of it.

Not everything can be outdoors yet, even if the weather is a bit nicer.  We still have time to have friends over for board games (and you can be lifting these two up, we spend a lot of time with their family):

Last week we even decided to have shashlik (shish-kebab-style barbecue, cooked over coals outside) it was so warm.  Of course, my business partner Scott and I were still working when the evening came (long days at work these days) so in the end we asked our wives to bring the food out there and we made a little fire in the yard and cooked there while we continued to work.

And I'll save the update on the factory and how it's coming for next time.  Suffice it for now to say that it's pretty good news; we have our first sales going out the door and are hopefully on track to start selling a few tons of nuts every month in the very near future.

As always, thanks for stopping by and thanks for remembering us!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Pine Nuts!

The lovely Bobbie will, at some point, be on here to tell you all about her "Ladies' Retreat" up in the frozen north, but since it's been too long I wanted to at least post something while we wait.  And, since we have the first nuts off our production line:

Above: Loose-sorted pine nuts.  Below: Vacuum-packaged 3 kilogram block of pine nuts (this bag is worth around $75!)

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Siberian Winter with 2 Lively Boys

So, too busy to keep up with this every week, but I did want to post at least a few pictures of the boys' winter.  At times when it's -40 our small apartment can feel like a prison for them, but Bobbie does a good job of varying the activities in an effort to keep them occupied and growing/learning.

Above we engage in a family game of Monopoly (kids' edition), one of their faves.  Below, dressing up for a party at school.

The snowman outfit was actually part of Matthew's Christmas present, so he put it on Christmas morning to open the rest of his presents.

The boys, who both love to help their mommy cook, got a kitchen toy to practice their skills with and a pirate boat-tent thing.

Poppa and Grandma also got in the act, as they skyped in to watch the boys open their presents on Christmas morning.

Gingerbread house master-in-training.

Of course, we have to get outside some, too.  Even when it's -45 like last week, we can still do it, you just have to cut it short after 10-15 minutes or so.

Sledding is one of the only things to do outside when it's that cold, but it's so much fun that I don't think the boys mind much.

Steven has started football training with a bunch of other boys. He goes 3 times/week; he's only just started this so he's catching up to the other boys a bit but he LOVES it.  Matthew will start next year (if he wants, currently he can't wait).

Oh, and we couldn't complete the post without showing you the jackpot we hit a month ago!  It turns out that there was another foreign family living in town, and they had decided to move back to their home country.  We got word through the grapevine that they were looking to sell some of their stuff (and, of course, this being T-land, there aren't a lot of people looking for Pam spray and Ranch powder).  

Well, we were more than happy to take all of it off their hands!  We've been thoroughly enjoying the Oreos, vanilla flavoring, Crisco, etc.  It won't last forever but it makes a nice break from our regular fare.

And that'll do it for today.  Check back soon for more interesting pictures of the pine nut factory, which officially began production on Friday!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Pine Nut Equipment

So, we're almost caught up now, so just a few last photos will get us up to the New Year!  Hurrah for a burst of posts!

Anyway, this week we have an update for you on the state of the pine nut business.  And business is booming.  Or, well, more like humming.  Loudly.  But more on that in a bit.  As you can see above, on Christmas Day we took delivery of the equipment that will process our pine nuts.  I didn't really want to work that day, but it's not celebrated here in North Asia and it just so happened that the guy who was travelling in to setup all of our equipment could only be here on the 25th.  C'est la vie.  

We did our family Christmas on the 26th instead, which in previous years wouldn't have bothered our boys as they wouldn't have known unless we told them.  Unfortunately they've learned to read a calendar this year, which led to much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth at the delay for Christmas!  But I'm getting off track.

Anyway, stage one was to get all the equipment into place.  In the foreground you can see the first separator, it separates our nuts into different sizes.  Behind it, next to the car (which obviously won't be there when production begins!) is the machine that actually shells the nuts.  Then, to the right, the second separator which separates the shells from the nuts, etc.  Behind that there is another machine to peel the shelled kernels, and over to the right there will eventually be a washing station.

The separators required some adjustment after a test run to get them running properly; apparently we'll be doing a lot of this so I had to learn how to do it all.

Below you can see how this actually works, if you can peer through the dark (I apologize for the darkness of the videos, it appears my phone requires a more well-lit area for video than I thought) to see it.  

As you can see, or probably can't, the nuts are shaken over a series of mesh sheets that separate the nuts by size.  This is important because the bigger nuts require the shelling machine to be set differently than the smaller nuts, so you must first separate the sizes before shelling them.

Below you can see the shelling machine itself, it spins the nuts between two drums which crack the outer shell.

I'll try to put up a video of this as well so you can see what happens.  Hopefully you'll be able to tell that what comes out is some shelled nuts, a lot of nuts with cracked shells, and some shells already separated from the kernel.  This mixture then goes into the second separator (being worked on in the picture below the video) to put these into separate containers for further processing.

Finally, you wash the nuts, then dry them, and then they go through a machine that peels the membrane from the kernel itself (sort of like the red membrane on a peanut).  What comes out of that machine looks like this (in box) with the peels at bottom on the green bag.

Interestingly, you can sell these peels, which are light and fluffy and have a wonderful smell of pine, to companies that use them to make pillows!

Even better, of course, are the wonderful nuts (seen above in the box) that you can then sell for a lot more than you paid for them.  Best of all, perhaps, is the option of eating them, but at the prices they sell for we can't afford to do much of that!

And that, dear folks, is how pine nuts are processed.  If we get more lights installed in the facility I'll take better videos and pictures one day, promise.  For now, we only ran a couple of bags through the machines to test them; everything is still packed up until construction of the building is complete.  Getting close on that, though, most of the walls are in now, just a few more to finish, a good cleaning and a bit of plumbing and we'll be done!  Well, and a ventilation system and a fire safety system to meet code.  And then we'll be done, and ready to start doing this a lot more!

Thanks for stopping by; see us again in a week or so when ... well, I'll think of something to post.  Hopefully.

Friday, January 3, 2014

See? Told You I'd Post Again Soon!

See?  And you thought I'd never actually do it!

And yet, here we are.  With a post that stretches all the way back to Thanksgiving (pictured above).  Normally, we have a massive Thanksgiving feast with all our T friends who have never experienced one, but since we're running out of friends who haven't ever had a Thanksgiving dinner in their lives, plus we were just kinda tired, instead we invited over an American single guy who's teaching English in town that Bobbie met at some sort of English expo a month or so earlier.  Being a Southern woman, she felt the need to take him in and feed him as his mother is 1000's of miles away, plus his roommate is a Chinese guy who hadn't ever had Thanksgiving, so it all dovetailed in perfectly.

No turkey this year, as we could only find a ham, but it was delicious and of course when you have stuffing that's the only thing that really matters (well, and deviled eggs) at a Thanksgiving meal anyway.

One of the other interesting things I did in December was take part in the local government's "One Village, One Product" program.  This is a rather ingenious idea to try to boost the economy by stressing that each village should, at a bare minimum, try to come up with one business that produces something, thus providing employment for at least a couple of people.  One of the big challenges T-land faces is that there are no jobs in many of the smaller villages, meaning that people, younger people especially, are naturally drawn to the capital to find work.  This leads to villages that once supported 1000 or more people in the Soviet times now consisting of a hundred retirees and maybe some of their grandkids, while all of the working-age people live in the city.

The government has tried to stem this tide by offering grants/loans to small business owners, and they held a big expo in December so every region could show off the businesses they were running.  Some of them were ideas with little upside for future sales growth (the production of T coats, for example) but others were interesting and showed promise.  Above you can see some of the ones that were displayed outside the expo center, with businesses that produce ready-made yurts or a hay-growing collective.  Below were some of the fur-trapping businesses that I found interesting, offering mink/wolf pelts for sale (presumably to garment manufacturers?).

Our region managed to scare up a passel of very cute T kids in traditional garb in an attempt to win the judges' favor:

Me with one of the other small business owners from our area.  He takes raw cast iron sheets and shapes them into interesting stoves that can run on used motor oil or kerosene.  They can be used for heating a home or cooking. 

Interesting, but perhaps without the same potential for future sales growth, was this business that offered stuffed sheep stomachs and milk vodka:

I doubt you can see it, but among the judges was the vice president of the republic (the equivalent of a lieutenant governor in the US).  I got to chat with him a bit about our pine nut business; it was a privilege to get to share what it is we're doing and our vision for the future of the business.

Now, for the business itself, I'm going to save the latest news for the next post in a week or so, but when I last showed you photos we had basically an empty frame set up.  Well, since then we've been hard at work progressing to actual interior walls!

Above: the enclosure around the generator
Below: the staircase to the second floor going in

And this is how it looks now, with actual walls going in.  Actually, it's a bit beyond even this now, so I need to go out and take some more pictures, but that will have to wait for our next update.

Thanks for stopping in, and we hope you'll have a very happy New Year!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Too Long

I was once told by a friend of ours that we started every blog with an apology over how long it had been since our last post.  Well, after noticing that she was right, I did my best to stop doing that; after all, though it was our goal to get a post up every week what did it really matter if we did only 3 a month instead?

However, this time I really should apologize.  It has been a whole month since our last post!  And it's not like nothing has been happening that we could post about, either - in fact, excessive busyness is part of the reason we haven't had time to write up a blog post!

But enough excuses; I'll post only a little of what we've had going on for the past month here, and then I promise that during the next week (which is a vacation week in Russia, so we don't have a ton going on) I'll post a couple more to catch you all up to date.

Well, as Bobbie's last post alluded to, I was gone for a few weeks in November.  It wasn't a trip out of the country this time, but just up north to visit some friends and check with them on how their language learning was going.  You may think it's cold here, but they have even colder temperatures than we do - it's the "real" Siberia!

I had a great visit with the folks there and it was a real privilege to be able to tell one couple that they had reached the level of language that they've been aiming for over the past few years.  Oh, and they had cute kids to play with, too.

They have an ocean nearby, so some of the street wares are a little different from ours.  However, just like in T-land, no freezer facilities are required to keep your produce fresh!

On the way back I had a day delay in Novosibirsk, so I bopped over to the Ikea for Christmas presents for Bobbie (a set of pots) and a dinner of cheap meatballs.

"So, what's been going on with the pine nut facility?" some of you are thinking.  Well, maybe not, but I'm going to tell you nevertheless.  When you last saw it it didn't have walls on the ends, so I'll start slow and just show you what it looked like when that much was done:

Of course, it's way beyond this now, but more on that in the next week in those posts I promised!

Thanks again for thinking of us, we love you and wish you all a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Culture Differences - A Blog By B

I LOVE to have people over!  I love to socialize and to cook - it's one of my passions.  It's been a way to form relationships here, so there are other benefits as well.  

Yet, being in a different culture has presented some challenges in my quest for showing hospitality.  Once you live in a different culture for 5 years you would think the challenges of accepting certain parts of the culture would be easier.  At least that is what I thought until last week.

Let me start of by saying that T-land is my home.  I love it here.  The people think differently and interact differently, and their whole view on what is socially acceptable and what's not are completely different than what you would find in the West, but I'm OK with that for the most part.  

However, last week I was struck by the realization that I still struggle with parts of the culture here.  Let me give you an example: our neighbors have become one of our best local friends in the past 4 years living here.  We call each other sister and brother (a sign you have been adopted into the family).  They are at our house at least 2-3 evenings a week.  Last week while Jesse was gone they came over to keep me company.  We played games, talked, and ate.  They also brought their 8 month old grandson over with them.  

Here are some things that happened that caused me to have to restrain my reaction (which was surprise and shock).  One evening we sat down to eat some boiling hot soup (I make sure it was hot since they don't like things unless they are boiling hot).  As we are eating they were taking small (boiling hot) bits of food out of their soup (like pork, potatoes, and cheese) and putting it in the baby's mouth.  My brain is saying "No, it's too hot, don't.  He can't chew and swallow, he'll choke."  

Now I know how the kids here can tolerate boiling hot tea without blinking (tea that would burn my mouth if I tried to drink it).  I didn't react too much but I did offer to puree everything into baby food for them which they accepted. The baby ate most of what I made so I guess he liked it.  Of course, his tummy wasn't used to so much solid food at once so it was, hmm, how shall we say, "rejected," and it came flying out over the couch and pillows.  

Blog Manager: I'm putting this up instead of one of the many pictures of babies vomiting available on google images, so you should definitely be thankful it's only this tasteless!

Babies do this so it didn't bother me one bit.  At least not until our guests just started wiping the pillow and couch off with their sleeves!  After they got most of it they rolled their sleeves up and continued talking and playing.  I went to get a moist rag to complete the cleanup and they said "Oh, it's OK, we got it".  So, as not to offend them, I left it there until they left.  By then, the throw up had transferred to every chair in the room and some on the floor.  Thankfully, dirtiness does not bother me as much as most Westereners so I was able to hide my reactions.

The other thing that I just had to laugh at was what my friend did.  She loves sweets - and in saying that I mean that she would eat pure sugar all the time if she could.  How do I know this?  Because she chugged my maple syrup!  

A highly under-syrupped pancake, according to our friend S

I offered her some pancakes I made and brought out my maple syrup for her to try since they don't have anything like that here.  She started by putting a little on the pancake.  A little syrup turned into a lot of syrup.  Finally, after absolutely drowning the pancake she pushed it away, took my syrup bottle, and started drinking it out of the bottle.  

Mouth agape, I just started laughing which startled her because to her this was an accepted practice.  Once I regained my composure a bit, I explained that was the first time I've seen that done and she was shocked and told me that it's the way they do things here.  So, I waited until she left, emptied the bottle, cleaned it, and made some more.  (I confess that I hid it away.)

Google tells me the above picture is from a movie, but I've never seen it so here's a clip from a much better (probably) movie.  I would put money on our friend actually enjoying spaghetti with syrup in it.

It didn't stop there.  Now, remember, they can't afford disposable diapers so they just put leggings on the baby and train them from the time they are 2 months old.  How do they "train" them?  By pulling their leggings down every hour and holding them in a squat position until they urinate or poop.  Since their traditional yurts all have outhouses they don't want to hold the baby over the hole in the out house.  

So, what is the next best thing to them?  The floor.  That's right - they would just pull down the baby's leggings and let him go right on our floor! I had 3 puddles of urine and 1 pile of poop on my floor.  I finally got a towel and tried to discreetly give it to them which they took and started using.  I've seen this done at other houses but this was the first time anyone has done it at our house.  I just did a lot of cleaning after they left.

Why would you go to all this trouble?

Does all of this mean the people here are worse just because they do things differently (and, granted, dirtier) than Westerners?  Absolutely not!  Remember, they have had to adopt to a hard life in yurts,  sheep herding, all in -50 weather, and the system that the T people have developed has served them for a long time.  It's just interesting to watch them try to adapt some of the old ways to a modern environment, and it does take some getting used to.