Travelling with purpose on a cruise to the Dominican Republic,
volunteering and making an impact in the community
(A big thank you to Fathom Travel for providing this opportunity. Opinions and observations are my own.)
Fathom™ describes itself as a new kind of cruise which combines love of travel with a desire to make a difference. My one-week cruise to the Dominican Republic was certainly not your typical cruise. True, there were many things one usually associates with cruising. We were on a cruise ship and we sailed on the ocean. We ate very well. There was a pool, live music and activities. But instead of sailing from port to port, we docked for three nights near Puerto Plata, arriving mid-day Tuesday and leaving mid-day Friday. That alone is unusual but what really differentiated this cruise were its activities and programs.
Fathom is a new brand launched by Carnival Corporation (parent company to many cruise lines). It offers impact travel – travel with a purpose, focusing on cultural immersion and social impact. Our trip to the Dominican Republic was all about community development. The Dominican Republic is a beautiful country, but also one with great need. 40% of the people live below the poverty line. More than 3 million do not have access to piped water. Through partnership with local organizations, Fathom passengers have opportunities to teach English, build water filters, plant trees, put a cement floor into a dirt-floor house and help in women’s cooperatives creating chocolate or recycling paper.
In the world of cruising where ships keep getting larger and larger, the 704-passenger Adonia is a smaller, more intimate setting. It belongs to British-based P&O Cruises. Fathom retained the British crew. I found other British influences on board – the kettle and wooden box of tea and coffee in our room, the delightful English accent of the recorded voice on the lifts (elevators) announcing deck numbers.
The ship has a pool, fitness centre, spa and salon. Shops carry fair trade products and brands that make a difference. The toiletries in our room were all fair trade.
Evening entertainment and activities takes place in the Curzon Lounge, with a parquet dance floor, or the Crow’s Nest Bar on the top deck, with views of the ocean.
Buffet-style dining is available in the Conservatory, sit-down meals in the Pacific Grill, and casual day-time fare (e.g. burgers) poolside in the Lido Grill. There is an additional charge ($15 for lunch, $25 for dinner) to eat in the elegant Ocean Grill, where Dominican chef Emil Vega creates modern dishes inspired by traditional Cuban and Dominican fare.
Life on Board
Life on board Fathom Adonia is relaxed. Dress is casual, even at dinner, although “smart casual” is recommended for the Ocean Grill, where reservations are recommended. The Pacific Grill is open-seating. You have no assigned time or table. You can select a private table or opt to join others. It was a great way to meet other passengers, hear their stories and learn about their Impact experiences.
There were many activities to keep us busy. I reread the daily lists when preparing this post and now want to go back to take in the activities I wasn’t able to schedule into my day on this trip.
Fitness-focused activities included morning yoga and mediation. The rocking of the ship added a new dimension to both. There were Pilates classes, spin classes and wellness workshops. The spa offered pampering treatments at a fee.
Fun activities included scavenger hunts, trivia games, Latin dance lessons, cocktail-mixing classes, paint nights and dominoes. There was even an opportunity to discover your spirit animal and superpower. (My spirit animal is deer. My superpower is Intelligent Insightful Inspirer. How cool does that sound!) There was live music every evening, supplied by the resident Craze Band and by local Dominican musicians while in port.
However, the biggest focus of the daytime activities was on Impact activities, social change and personal growth. Impact guides facilitated these sessions and acted as translators on the ground. Although the guides were relatively young, they already had their own interesting stories, from living in Peru to serving in the Peace Corps to a range of experiences in between.
Participation in all the activities was optional, but there were three specific workshops we were all encouraged to attend to get the most out of our experience. The first two occurred before we reached the Dominican Republic. The last session took place as we sailed back to Miami.
Being a Fathom Traveler provided background on what Fathom is and helped prepare us for activities on the ground. The focus is on alongsideness (working as partners with the locals) and empathy vs sympathy. We were told to focus on the people during our activities, not their surroundings. We learned that the idea for Fathom first surfaced in a dinner conversation between social entrepreneur Tara Russell, now president of Fathom, and her friend Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corporation.
Getting to know the Dominican Republic provided us with information about the history and culture of the Dominican Republic.
In the Fathom What’s Next session, we talked about our experiences and learned the measurable impact of our work. We left messages for the next set of travellers.
Other activities included Spanish lessons, how to work while teaching English, photography tips, a coffee tasting workshop, being a change maker, raising change makers, social innovation in action and curiosity. Personal growth sessions covered topics like finding balance in life, time management and telling your stories.
I felt a sense of community on ship. I think several things combined to create that feeling – the small size of the ship, working alongside others in Impact activities, discussions in workshops and the general attitude of fellow passengers, eager to find out what Impact activities others had participated in and what their experiences had been.
Fathom has partnered with Entrena, an organization specializing in training, education and social engineering with a 25 year history in the Dominican Republic, and IDDI, a non-profit organization created in 1984 to transform the lives of the low-income population of the Dominican Republic and the border regions of Haiti. Through those partnerships, Fathom has created programs in which passengers participate to improve the lives of families and communities. Facilitators from the partner organizations guided us through the activities and translated as needed.
Eight programs currently exist. More are under consideration for future implementation. Up to three Impact activities are included in the cruise. Each activity runs for half a day. A couple (e.g. water filters, cement floors) have a small additional charge ($20) to help cover the cost of supplies.
I participated in the English in the Community program, where travellers work with families in their homes teaching English following a set curriculum. I planted cacao seedlings, sorted cacao beans and packaged chocolate at a women’s chocolate-making cooperative. I helped make sheets of paper at a women’s paper recycling cooperative.
My husband participated in a couple of the same programs as I did, but we went our separate ways for one activity. He helped build a cement floor in a dirt-floor house. Replacing dirt floors with cement has a direct impact on health and cleanliness, provides safety from flooding and is a source of pride and dignity. When my husband arrived at the home, all the family’s belongings were already on the yard. The house was empty and ready to be worked on. The woman was pregnant, which was the reason this family made it to the top of the prioritization list for a floor.
The team, which included Fathom travellers and family members, mixed cement in a puddle in the yard, formed a bucket brigade to haul water and laid the floor. There were tasks for all levels of ability. After the floor was laid and the travellers returned to the ship, the local cement expert would finish evening the floor and apply a paint colour of the family’s choice. The family had chosen yellow. Within eight hours, the family would move their belongings back into the house. Before my husband’s team returned to the bus and back to the ship, they were taken two streets over to see the finished floor on the grandmother’s house. That floor had been laid by a Fathom team the day before and was painted green.
The water filter program is done in conjunction with the company Wine to Water. Participants in this activity help make water filters from sawdust, clay and liquid silver. The filters reduce water-borne illnesses and save on the cost of water. One filter serves five people. I talked with someone who did the water filter activity. The group made three filters that day. He said the most rewarding part was delivering the filters to families at the end of the activity.
Reforestation activities included planting seedlings in the nursery and planting trees in the countryside. Reforestation improves soil quality, localized air and water quality and improves biodiversity.
There is also opportunity to teach English in schools or help in music, sports and art camps when school is not in session.
The work at all the activities I participated in was happy work. I learned something. The people were warm and welcoming, full of love and joy. Although informing and guiding us reduced the output rate of the regular workers, the extra hands we brought increased total production overall.
There were opportunities to do more traditional tourist activities. Shore excursions included tours of Puerto Plata, beach visits and assorted water activities. Some opted to hire a taxi for a private, more individualized tour. There was also lots to do in Amber Cove, where we were docked. Amber Cove is a new port built by Carnival Corporation. The resort-like area is open only to cruise passengers and includes a large pool, waterslides, water activities, cabanas for rent, a zipline, a market place, bars and a restaurant.
Who are Fathom Travellers?
Our fellow travellers spanned all age groups, from age eight to eighty. Some were first-time cruisers. Others were frequent cruisers. Some had done other volunteer travel. For others, like us, it was their first experience. There were several families. The children and teens were very engaged in the Impact activities. Most passengers generally wanted to “give back”. Fathom only began sailing in April 2016. Therefore I was surprised to meet a couple of people who’d been on a previous Fathom trip. I talked with others who were already planning their next trip, intending to bring more family members with them.
There were times I felt inadequate and wondered what difference my small contribution made, but it did make a difference. Each individual effort matters, but it is the cumulative effort of travellers before you, travellers beside you and travellers after you which creates the larger impact.
The Adonia sails to the Dominican Republic every second week. Our trip was its sixth voyage. The total impact of those six trips is as follows:
- 728 learners have each had 13 hours of direct instruction and interaction with an English speaker (5.4% of the goal of 240 hours as recommended by international bodies)
- 316 water filters have been built, providing clean water to over 1500 people
- 16 homes now have cement floors, directly impacting the lives of 111 people
- 11 women have jobs in recycling paper and 4 artisans have space to work and sell their crafts
- 3, 851 sheets of paper have been produced
- 1, 679 pounds of cacao nibs have been cleaned, which equals 49,500 finished chocolate bars
- 25,008 chocolate products have been packaged
(Note: Fathom Adonia sails to Cuba on alternate weeks. It is the first American cruise ship to sail to Cuba in more than 50 years. The Cuban trip is different than the Dominican trip. Three cities are visited. The focus is on cultural exchange, learning about the culture and the people.)
There was also an impact on the travellers. One woman told me she was inspired to go home and simplify her life. Another woman, travelling with her husband and ten- and eleven-year-old daughters, said her daughters asked if they could replace their annual fall Disney cruise with another Fathom cruise. A young woman said she was going to learn Spanish. I participated in a Twitter chat a few days after returning from the trip and the words used to describe the experience included “life-changing” and “transforming.”
After my husband and I had completed our Impact activities, we treated ourselves to an afternoon at the beach. As I relaxed on the beach bed with the sun warming my body and the brisk breeze cooling it, tears started to trickle down by cheeks. The emotions I felt were so many and so mixed it was hard to describe, but the strongest feeling was one of abundance and love. I understood what “alongsideness” meant. It will likely take several more weeks to fully comprehend the impact this trip has made on me.
Tips if You Go
- Shoulders and knees must be covered (men and women) when working with children in the schools and camps. Closed shoes are not mandatory, but are recommended because you may be getting down onto the floor.
- Closed shoes are required for reforestation and cement floors, as are long pants.
- Take clothes you don’t mind getting dirty for the messier activities (reforestation, cement floors, water filters) and don’t need to wear elsewhere on the trip.
- There is a self-serve, free laundrette on ship. Bring a couple of laundry detergent packets and you can wash your clothes.
- Pack sun screen and bug spray. Use them.
- There is Internet available on ship for a fee. Before we sailed, I was warned the satellite service could be spotty while at sea. Although I did not use it a lot, I had no issue when I did. Some others on board had trouble with access. The Internet service is free while docked at Amber Cover. Here is where I found it spotty and very slow to use at times. At other times, it was fine.
- Do not hesitate to talk to everyone – fellow passengers, crew, Impact guides, facilitators and the Dominicans you work alongside with. The facilitators are happy to translate. The stories you hear and the connections you make may be the most moving part of your experience.
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
Fathom did a good job of combining the relaxing/rejuvenating aspects of vacation with the opportunity to make a difference and to experience personal growth. I was impressed with the care and effort put into the programs, programs designed to make a sustainable difference.
Before sailing, I wondered if the disparity between the luxury of the ship and what I encountered ashore would be disturbing. Life on the ship was indeed a luxury, but the transition from shore to ship was not as jarring as I’d anticipated. There are a few reasons for that. The deliberate absence of a casino, Las Vegas style shows and formal nights led to a lower-key atmosphere. The entire experience (on ship and on shore) was full of positive energy, generated from other passengers and the Dominicans we worked with. Back on ship, we were eager to share our experiences and learn more. Crew members were very friendly and also interested in hearing what we’d done.
There is a Fathom Impact Center in Amber Cove. Some activities were held there while docked. It is a place for passengers on the Adonia to find out more about the Impact activities they didn’t participate in and for passengers from other cruise ships to learn about Fathom. I think it is appropriate to end this post with a photo of the Gratitude wall in that centre. The wall contains drawings and notes from people impacted by the Fathom programs. The box on the chair in front of the wall is full of more notes ready to be added to the wall.