Cuba is often considered to be a world apart, although it’s rarely compared to being in outer space. Still, that’s exactly what life on the island has felt like for Idania del Rio recently.
“I feel like an astronaut. I feel like I’m discovering a whole new world,” she explains.
Young, talented and vivacious, Idania del Rio is part of a new generation of Cuban entrepreneurs.
Her idea was simple but incredibly effective: open Havana’s first design store.
Clandestina in the heart of the old city is now a thriving business producing T-shirts, handbags and posters with a unique slant on modern Cuban life.
Many of the clothes and cushion covers carry their line’s increasingly recognisable slogans: “Actually I’m in Havana” and “99% diseño cubano” (99% Cuban design).
The logos reflect a modern, outwardly looking Cuba and, judging from the store’s customer base, they appeal to both tourists and fashion-conscious locals alike.
Clandestina may be a small shop but Idania has big dreams. She is already in talks with a business partner in New York about selling her products outside the island.
Amid the new buzz around young Cuban private business owners, Idania and her partner have been feted by foreign investors, keen to hear how to launch a successful business in Cuba.
In the process, they have travelled everywhere from the headquarters of Airbnb in California to India.
Back in Havana, the store is a big hit.
“I feel like if people around me feel the same we can actually do something really amazing,” explains Idania.
There is little doubt that good timing has played a part – the shop opening just as the US and Cuba announced a thaw in relations.
Still, Idania remains realistic about the pitfalls of starting a private business on an island that was, until recently, almost entirely state-run.
“Maybe this doesn’t work out and maybe next year we are out of business. But right now it feels like it’s working and it feels like I can have a future, like the girls here can have a future too.”
On the shop floor, the team are manning a simple silkscreen press, printing out more T-shirts and bags for the customers.
But if Idania is striving for change, Adela Soto has arguably dedicated her life to continuity.
Education is one of the pillars of the Cuban Revolution. As a primary school teacher, few have a greater sense of that responsibility than Adela.
“Education is fundamental”, she says.
“The other professions are born from us. If there is not a good teacher, there is not a good doctor, a good architect, a good engineer, a good carpenter or a good fisherman. They all pass through the teacher’s hands.”
You can’t argue with her logic. But Adela admits to having concerns about the pace of change in Cuba and what it could mean for Cuban society.
“History and society keep changing. So it’s our responsibility to guide this new society on the right path.
“We need to keep instilling the pupils with values because honesty, sincerity – these aren’t part of a system, a regime or change. They go with a person, with that person’s future.”
The one area where she would welcome change though is in teachers’ salaries, currently around $30 a month. Under Cuba’s complicated dual currency system, her wage is paid in local Cuban pesos. As such, her purchasing power is well below that of those earning money in the country’s hard currency, the ‘convertible peso’ or CUC.
Little wonder then that, since 2008 when restrictions on the economy eased, thousands of ordinary Cubans have abandoned their state jobs and started private businesses.
Fisherman Efrain Leon and his colleagues set up a cooperative a few years ago and are now much freer to chart their own course.
He is the captain of their small seven-metre (25-foot) vessel and says fishing is in his blood.
“I love the sea. I dream every day of going out to fish. I like the big game fishing: sharks, swordfish, marlin.”
A hint of Hemingway in his soul, perhaps. But Efrain is also becoming an increasingly canny businessman.
“We divide this among 5 people” he explains after a sale of around $100 worth of stock on the quayside. “That way, we have enough to get through the week.”
It’s a tough life, both physically and economically, but Efrain knows no other.
Despite the days lost through poor weather or the rising costs of fishing tackle, he’s confident that the industry can continue to provide for him and his young family.
Yamilka Rodriguez is all too aware of the importance Cubans attach to their sportsmen and women.
An Olympic hopeful for Rio 2016, she is one of the top fencers in Cuba and says the weight of expectation is on her shoulders.
“Our people are very well educated about sports. Sometimes they stop you in the street and I ask myself: how do they know it’s me?”
But she says it’s a feeling which spurs her on rather than intimidates her.
Cuba looks after its top athletes. Yamilka and her husband, a former volleyball champion, own a nice home – “our cave” as she calls it – where she can relax with their two-year-old daughter when not training.
The clock is ticking on her Olympic dream and the next few events are crucial to gain the necessary points for qualification. At 37, she already has a plan for when she retires from competition.
“I am licensed in physical education and I also have a degree in psychology so I will be able to work in either of those professions,” she says.
But with just months until Rio 2016, it’s no time to talk of retirement just yet.
For now, she’s adhering to a gruelling training schedule and putting it above everything else – including her family. Hopefully, she says, when the day comes to hang up her foil, she can do so with an Olympic gold medal in her cabinet.
Cuba’s youth perennially complain of boredom, saying that there aren’t many affordable options for an evening out in Havana. Musician X Alfonso thinks he may have found a solution, ‘Fabrica de Arte Cubano’ (FAC), an art venue that wouldn’t look out of place in Berlin, Barcelona or Brooklyn.
“The whole team of ‘Fabrica’ decided to make a place that we would like to go to,” explains X. “That was the idea. Where would you like to go and what would you like to do there?”
The answer, it seems, is a little of everything. On any given night the Fabrica involves photography exhibitions, fashion shows, documentary films, two live music venues, stalls for local designers and artists plus half a dozen bars.
“It’s a new concept to attract the public to see art, things that maybe they would not do if everything wasn’t all mixed like here in La Fabrica,” says X.
It was a brave move. The site is state-owned, the events and bars inside it are private businesses – a unique experiment in the arts in Cuba.
But it’s proving a great success. At weekends it is heaving with locals and tourists.
For X, if the recent changes on the island achieve anything, they should underline the similarities between Cubans and the rest of the world.
“We are a country like any other, like other people at the end of the day”, he says. “You can see it here in the Fabrica. Everyone communicates and gets on together fine.”