Photo of four researchers at restaurant

Cuba week: Thingamachinga complicates a center visit

An index of the Cuba series appears at the first post.

July 28, 2015

I awoke early this morning to visit the Center for Molecular Immunology (CIM or CIMAB). Under new U.S. rules, conducting scientific collaborations is one of twelve allowable categories of activity that justify travel for U.S. citizens to Cuba. Lorenzo had met Rossana Garcia when they were both conducting research at the CIGB: Center of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. She volunteered to set up a meeting at CIM with Ernesto Moreno, a bioinformaticist who deals with protein-ligand structure modeling. Lorenzo and I were to pick up Ross on our way to CIM.

Our trip to CIM was illustrative of the central role transportation plays in the life of Cubans. The roads were lined with pedestrians attempting to commute to work. Classic American vehicles from the 1940s-1960s appear to be about half of those on the road, but these cars are Frankensteins of engines and transmissions taken from other vehicles. Many are taxis on fixed routes that charge a set amount for destinations along that route. Most of the others on the road are more recent Russian vehicles, such as Ladas, or French / Korean cars that have been purchased by business concerns (new cars are available from a small number of dealerships, but they are priced far more highly than they would be in the United States). In any case, there are too few cars to go around. It is quite common to see a taxi with more than seven people inside.

Suddenly, our ride to meet Ross was interrupted, and Thingamachinga limped to a halt. The front passenger-side tire had gone flat. Lorenzo looked worried, and I tried to cheer him up by joking that we could call the American Automobile Association. He phoned his brother-in-law and began discerning how to detach the spare tire and jack the front off the ground. When Ramon arrived, he found the full-size jack (the car had two) and in no time had the front end up in the air. With a few kicks on a wrench, he had removed and replaced the tire. After this, Lorenzo nicknamed Ramon “triple-A.” We were underway once more!

Lorenzo continued with his introduction to the city as we approached Ross’ home. After a delay behind a car that couldn’t pick a lane, we were pulled to the curb by a police officer. The officer told Lorenzo that he was driving in the lane for fast cars, but he was driving a “tareco.” He needed to swallow his pride and stay in the right lane! Lorenzo fumed after the officer left, but we continued on our way to Ross’ home. Having picked her up without further incident, we continued to CIM.

The experience of CIM was an interesting one. The Center has invested quite a lot of its effort in erythropoietin as well as antibodies to EGFR and other cancer-related proteins. Rather than limiting its efforts to research, the site has considerable antibody production facilities attached to it. The production labs are built in a concentric structure, with higher purity air within each layer. They’ve built their utility and facility floor so that they can repair lights and other systems without breaching the air wall for production facilities.

Of course, my interests are tied closely to mass spectrometry and computation. Ernesto Moreno was glad to show us both. The mass spectrometry systems were moving to a new building, but he was still able to show us the Shimadzu Axima with a MALDI source. I was reminded of a similar model I had seen at Vanderbilt a few years back. I asked about their choice of this machine for the laboratory, and he noted that U.S. embargo rules eliminate many mass spectrometer companies from consideration because more than some defined percentage of their parts come from the United States (or the company is headquartered in the U.S.). “The right tool for the right job” is not always available to them.

Ernesto had built a Beowulf cluster in his own office. It featured a variety of machines that they’d been able to acquire over some period of time. The oldest processors were Pentium D dual-core CPUs from 2005. The newest ones were Core i3 processors (we frequently use these in contemporary laptops). The cluster has seen considerable use as a Rosetta server, but Ernesto uses it for a variety of purposes, such as free energy modeling and ligand-docking. I was reminded of the inexpensive cluster I built for my lab, initially from PowerPC Apple Mac Minis, but later from high-end Intel i7s. Yes, I definitely had it easier.

As is customary, Lorenzo and I hosted Ross and Ernesto for lunch at a nearby restaurant: El Pedregal. We ate on a shady patio overlooking a massive koi pond, executed in concrete. For an appetizer, we had fried plantains stuffed with ham and cheese. The entrees, however, were not ready when we ate the last of the appetizers. Instead, we continued our conversation, occasionally eying the wait staff at the restaurant. After an hour had passed since our orders, the food arrived. A large shared plate of seafood in sauce came first, but we had no individual plates to spoon it onto. After another delay, our individual plates arrived, with kebabs, black beans and rice, and french fries. The seafood sauce was nice, though I thought the shrimp seemed chewy. The French fries looked promising, but they were simply cold. Lorenzo looked sad at the beans and rice. The kebab, however, was really good. The waitresses seemed quite uncertain how to handle our group of four. Lorenzo and I wondered just what would be necessary for Cuba to develop a thriving tourist industry if suddenly U.S. travelers began appearing en masse.

Photo of four researchers at restaurant

Colleagues at El Pedregal. From left to right: Lorenzo, Ross, Dave, and Ernesto

On our drive back to Ross’ home, the spare tire blew out. Lorenzo rolled the flat tire that had blown during the morning ride to a nearby service station while Ross and I chatted near a business at the road side. Lorenzo returned twenty minutes later, with a glum look on his face. The service station had an air compressor, alright, but it had been out of commission for two months. He “called triple-A.” Ross and I boarded one of the American cars serving as a circuit cab, and I waited in comfort over at her home near the Avenue of the Presidents, munching mango chunks, while Lorenzo and his brother-in-law sweated in the heat.

Ross told me a bit of her family’s history. Her father formerly played a diplomatic role for Cuba, and her home is filled with bits of art from many places. Her family moved to their current home in the late 1980s, when she was still a teenager. They had been living elsewhere in Havana, but they were ready for a new place. They filed an advertisement in the city newspaper for “permutas;” they were willing to take part in a home swap. Another family expressed interest in a trade, along with some money. When they completed the trade, they had to conduct quite a few repairs and clean up a mess. It has been transformed since then into a lovely space, with a patio that affords a nice look at the city.

Cuba from a residential balcony

A view of the city from an upper balcony near the Avenue of the Presidents

When Lorenzo arrived at Ross’ home a couple of hours later, he was clearly wiped out from his exertions. We called the day to a close around the end of the work day, and he drove me over to his nephew’s apartment. As the evening wore on, the number of people in conversations at the side of the street increased, and loud music with an aggressive beat poured out of the neighbor’s apartment. I read in the living room space downstairs, listening to the sounds and enjoying the blast of air from the fan. The bedroom had an air conditioner in its one window, but I didn’t want to cut myself off from the rest of the world just yet. I finished the novel I was reading and plopped onto the mattress.


2 thoughts on “Cuba week: Thingamachinga complicates a center visit

  1. Pingback: My Week in Cuba: Arriving in a different world | Picking Up The Tabb

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