In my last post, I mentioned that a cruise to the Dominican Republic on Fathom is more than a vacation; it’s life changing. Where that phenomenon takes place is on the impact activities on land. You certainly may have an epiphany while you’re snorkeling, or you may be fulfilling a lifelong dream on your offshore fishing charter, but the impact activities are where you have the greatest potential to reach deep down and learn something new about yourself.
This out-of-the-ordinary seven night itinerary sails from Miami on Sundays, giving you a full day at sea on Monday, arriving in Amber Cove on Tuesday at midday, and sailing again on Friday afternoon. After another day at sea Saturday, you’re back in Miami by Sunday morning. There are 6 time slots during which you can schedule various activities or shore excursions. Fathom recommends that you participate in three impact activities, so that’s what I did. I started off with something easy and relaxing, though: the Playa Dorada Beach excursion. It was a nice enough beach, and I would recommend it to anyone who would like to spend an afternoon being a beach bum.
When I returned to the ship, I rode the elevator with a lady who had just been telling someone how she participated in the Community English impact activity. She said to me half-jokingly, “I saved the world today. What did you do?” I looked her square in the eye and said, “I went to the beach!” I then explained that I would be doing impact activities later in the week.
On Wednesday morning, I took a bus ride into the mountains to Altamira, where Chocal is located. This is an organic chocolate factory run by and for women who used to have to travel far away from their families to find work. These women can work close to home now, and with the help of Fathom travelers, they will be able to meet demand for their product. This will, in turn, enable them to hire other people with the added revenue, and get their business rolling. Once Chocal is off and running, Fathom will find another such business to assist. It’s a wonderful way to leave a lasting economic impact on the region. It’s more than just buying trinkets and leaving a few dollars behind, although that helps, too.
We helped the women and employees of Chocal sort beans, sift through and pick out shells from processed beans, pour chocolate into candy forms, and package/label the bars and candies. It was quick, lively work, peppered with laughter and jokes. The Dominican people I encountered love to laugh and make jokes. For those of us who couldn’t speak more than a few Spanish words, there were hand gestures and nodding and such going while we tried to figure out how to tell the bad cacao beans from the good ones. After working all morning, we had a brief tour of the cacao tree nursery, then were served a delicious traditional meal in the community center next door.
I still wasn’t sure we were actually helping, though. I had a fleeting thought that maybe the cruise line was paying these businesses to allow tourists to come and in feel like they were doing something good. But I realized that for every job station, there was one local person supervising us, while about six or eight of us worked. So, for the hours we were there, we may have worked more slowly than the women themselves would have, but there were still many people doing the work that one person would normally have done. Okay, I was about halfway convinced that this could make an impact.
I was a little tired after helping the ladies at Chocal all morning, but still had to get on another bus and visit Puerto Plata’s Top Ten Places to See. This was what I refer to as my “rock star day,” because I did an impact activity and an excursion. It can be a tight schedule, depending on the things you choose. I highly recommend going to the shore excursion desk once you are on the ship and confirming that you have not overbooked yourself. The Top Ten tour was good, and like the other traditional excursions, it was priced a little lower than most of the other cruise lines’ excursions. It was very reasonable, and the value was about right for what I paid.
Thank goodness, I slept very well on the ship, because this busiest day really wore me out.
Thursday, I took the hour-long bumpy bus ride up the mountain to a school in a small village, where we worked with sixth graders on their conversational English. The children greeted us in the library with a dance, after which we did a few icebreakers.
There were about 30 travelers and about 40 students, so many of us worked one-on-one with students. Since I speak little to no Spanish and they are just beginning their English learning journey, there wasn’t much conversation, unfortunately. I had managed to figure out how to say that I have one son and ask whether they had brothers and sisters. But mostly, we worked on the task at hand: greetings, such as “Nice to meet you,” a few simple vocabulary words, and the alphabet in English. One young girl and I would just laugh when we got to the letter W, because it is so difficult and strange.
You might wonder why in the world Dominican children who live in a small village in the mountains would need to learn English. The answer is simple: because of Americans like me who don’t speak Spanish. American tourists are flocking to DR every day, and tourism is growing by leaps and bounds. New jobs are being created, but only for those who can speak English. More English speakers are needed, and the best will be hired. As roughly half of the country lives below the poverty level, they are desperate for better education and a better economy. Even the teachers in this small village have very limited English. By helping these children with our language, we are empowering them to get better jobs when they grow up.
And they are so grateful and excited that we are there. Their sweet smiles really captured my heart. A few of the students stood up and told us at the end how much it means to them that we are there. Our impact guide translated for us. The last student even became teary-eyed and said, “God bless you.” When is the last time you felt that appreciated? This is was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my life. No, my two hours at that school will not mean that someone now speaks fluent English. But together, over time, Fathom travelers will make a difference in these children’s lives. The cumulative effect of contact with native speakers will be profound.
After we left the school, we were served a catered lunch of Dominican food at a public park. Local children were playing basketball on the court next to us and others were playing catch on a baseball field adjacent. Baseball is the most popular sport in DR. It’s said that most families with sons dream of their boys growing up to play professional baseball.
On Friday morning before departing the port at Amber Cove, we had time for one last activity. I chose to go to RePapel (a paper recycling business), which is about 10 minutes down the road from the port, in the heart of a city area. Just like everywhere else we went, children stared at the alien Americans driving up in a bus. I think we are just as fascinating to them as they are to us. As we entered RePapel, the women were chanting and clapping with enthusiasm at our arrival. We heard stories of how almost all of the women are single mothers and used to travel 4 hours to Santo Domingo to find work. They would have to leave their children behind all week long, hardly ever seeing them. But now, because they have the opportunity to own RePapel together, they can work close to home, see their children each day, and have more hope for the future.
First, I worked at various craft stations, where you can assist with making coasters and jewelry for tourists and travelers to buy. You can also help make candles, which are very much needed at RePapel. Because there is not enough electricity to go around, the city has rolling blackouts. Sometimes in the middle of their work day, the power will go out. They also give candles to some of the people who live in the neighborhood and can’t afford them. But let’s get down to the business of making recycled paper.
They do not have a shredder, so people shred the paper by hand. This was another place where I saw that we were most definitely actually helping. One lady worked with us and supervised, while about six of us did the work she would normally do by herself. At another station, we helped make the pulp for the recycled paper. We also helped sift it onto screens and put it onto boards where it can dry and become a rough, bumpy piece of paper.
The last station was the most physically demanding, where we used a piece of pipe to smooth the dried paper.
These women’s warmth and beautiful spirits were inspiring. If I thought I had never felt gratitude and appreciation like that of the students the day before, this was even more significant. As a female business owner myself, it was special to me to come alongside these women and help them in their enterprise for a couple of hours. It was meaningful to me before I even got there, but then I connected with one of the ladies who was just so full of joy and personality, that we didn’t need a spoken language to communicate. We communicated through smiles, dancing, laughter, and work. It was beautiful.
When we left that day, we were told that our group of travelers had completed, in about two hours’ time, the equivalent of three days of regular work for those ladies. Their products are in demand, and without the travelers, they will never be able to meet that demand. But with our hands working alongside theirs, they can meet demand, build their business, and create more jobs.
Some other impact activities include making water filters, mixing and pouring concrete floors in homes that have dirt floors, going to someone’s home to help an individual family with English, reforestation, and sports & arts camps when school is not in session. Since many Dominican homes don’t have access to clean water, absenteeism in schools is about 30% from waterborne illnesses. One water filter makes a big difference to the family who receives it. In the village where travelers are pouring concrete floors, about 80% of the homes have dirt floors. With Fathom travelers’ help, it is expected that every home in the village will have a concrete floor by the end of 2016. Fathom will then move on to another village.
As we sailed away from DR on Friday afternoon, I looked back at those verdant, lush mountains and thought, “I did something here. In some small way, I helped and left a positive mark on this place.” I’ve never felt that way about any other trip. I want to do it again and again.
You can be part of this incredible movement. You can have this amazing experience, just like I did. Contact Azalea Travel for more information.