I just returned from a 3-day stay in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. Fathom Travel took me on as a “Fathom Ambassador” because of a personal recommendation and a travel writing background. I was thrilled to go, but kept expectations low and vowed to write an honest, from the heart account about what I felt, heard, saw and did. So here goes…
I was truly blown away. Fathom will undoubtedly make a long-term impact with this type of travel offering. Yes, it will be a cruise (Fathom is actually the newest brand in the Carnival Corporation), but it has a twist. Once the ship reaches its destination, the passengers will engage in “impact activities,” which means they get the chance to roll up their sleeves to help the local community with important projects.
My fellow ambassadors flew in from around the country to test out and engage in several of these local impact activities that will be offered to cruise passengers.
On our first day, we made it to the turquoise crescent of Long Beach, where we planted over 400 sea grape trees and 200 seedlings. We cleaned the beach too, collecting about 25 bags of eye-opening trash. As we got dirty planting trees, taking care with the fragile root balls and taking turns with the shovel, our caring selves emerged. We learned about how these trees would help the beach from the local Dominicans who work for IDDI (in partnership with Fathom), and that helped us see the bigger picture of our work.
At one point in the morning, as the sun warmed our backs, a fellow volunteer from California, held a trash bag while I stuffed strewn Styrofoam trays into it. We were helping. We were talking. We were making a difference. The better we felt about what we were doing, the better we felt about each other and ourselves.
This extended quickly to how we felt about the island we were on, and how we felt toward the people who call it home. It made us smile. We hugged and high-fived our new Dominican friends. We bonded. Everyone felt good. The good feelings multiplied and were contagious. As we focused on doing our best with each activity, we found ourselves opening up our hearts and minds to each other in ways that only volunteering can do.
The energy and positive attitude of each volunteer grew and grew. Hearts grew. The beach got clean. The trees got planted to protect the coast from erosion. The seedlings got planted in little bags that were taken to a nursery. Initially, we found ourselves hunting for WIFI to reach out to the rest of the world, only to find that the world that really mattered was right in front of us. We connected with the local people and with each other instead, and in so doing, became truly present in an impoverished place, doing good. This heady cocktail of “voluntourism” as it’s been coined, gave way to such elated empowerment and enlightenment. We were way more connected to each other and to the beach and to the Dominican people than if we had just sat down and soaked up the sun and surf, or found that elusive WIFI connection.
Day two brought a new experience. It was time to ride our bus up into the hills, on a dirt road full of cows and ruts, to an elementary school. We descended the bus like awkward teens, self-conscious and huddled together by the bathroom. But then everything changed. We single-filed into a 4th grade classroom and were greeted with the most genuine small smiles on 27 warm faces that gazed upon us as if we were movie stars.
The music was cranked up and every child, local leader and volunteer danced the awkwardness away. It flowed out of the slatted classroom windows like hot air. We settled into crayons and name games to break the ice and cross the language barrier.
We then moved on to creating soccer balls, using only a blown up balloon, some layers of newspaper to wrap around it and some tape to keep it all together.
The shy smiles on the 9-year boys and girls were melting into real ones before our eyes. The volunteers were becoming less edgy and awkward. The good was being done. The magic of connecting across cultures was happening and we were so caught up in the moment that we couldn’t even see it.
Then it got even better. We all took our newly made newspaper-and-air style soccer balls outside to the blacktop in the 78 degree Dominican morning sunlight and we played a friendly game of soccer. It was all high fives and team names and cheering, clapping, goal celebrating and even some patty cake games and resurrected cheerleading cheers.
And it was also the beauty of lining our team up at the end of an exhilarating game to teach good sportsmanship by handshaking with the other team. Language barriers were still present, but the barriers of truly connecting, learning and respecting one another as teammates with a common goal were all winningly knocked down. The hugs and smiles on that blacktop were all honest and real. So few words said, but so much good had been done.
Team pictures were taken, many more hugs and then back to the classroom to say our final thank you’s to each other. Volunteers stood hand in hand on one side of the classroom while the children stood on the other. It was a powerful moment of recognition and gratitude. A girl in braids volunteered to speak her heart, thanking us for coming and spending the day with them, saying she wouldn’t forget us, and thanking us for teaching them new ideas and strategies. All the Ambassador volunteers boarded the bus with equally full hearts. We did not want to leave.
Day three brought us to RePapel, where we sat with the women who work there to experience every stage of paper recycling. We ripped papers up separating out the ink parts from the parts of each paper without ink. It was tedious work, but just as boredom set in, suddenly came the most beautiful voice from one of the women workers and our spirits were instantly lifted and the work was lighter. An added bonus to doing this work was in how it highlighted and brought home the burden, and the importance of recycling paper.
We then moved to the next room in the house where paper was being washed in a washing machine, then blended in a blender. The resulting pulp was then added to water in an oversized sink were we sifted sieves to create the new paper. Laying the new paper onto a drying rack was an satisfying moment. Then we moved to the next station, a table with rolling pins we used to flatten the paper and as we did that, the ladies sang, clapped, laughed and danced. To say it was heartwarming is not doing it justice. The music and warmth of these hard working Dominican women at RePapel made our spirits soar.
As we left the hugs were every which way and the tears were flowing from both volunteers and the RePapel women. We floated out on a euphoric cloud of humanity and well-being.
Fathom Travel is launching its inaugural Impact Travel voyage on a 700 passenger cruise ship in April 2016 (that’s next month people!). Dominican Republic will be swiftly followed by other destinations, such a Cuba, which seems to be on everybody’s travel list lately.
The good that this type of travel experience does for every person involved cannot be overstated. As volunteers we bonded, but we did so while connecting with the Dominican people and gaining so much knowledge and understanding about the needs of the local community. We could all see that we were making a real difference and feeling so happy about doing such good work that would be built upon by the next group of like-minded visitors who would come just after us. The gratitude that we felt while on the ground in Puerto Plata was immense.
In my opinion, families should run to do this type of trip. Children should have this experience with their parents, and vice versa. It’s worth about 500 beach vacations and trips to Disney, easily. The beauty of this type of trip is that those community service hours our kids need for school and church can be filled up in one fell swoop while family bonding sits at a “10″ and our kids learn how truly great it feels to give their time and energy to others as good global citizens. And in a world that is shrinking every day, we certainly can’t create too many of them! Next stop kids: Peace Corps!