Written By: Heather Bernes, Fathom Traveler
There’s been a lot of chatter that 2016 has been “The Worst Year Ever.” World conflict, natural disasters, untimely deaths, a turbulent political climate, you name it. If you’re like me, it feels like every year goes faster than the last. I could have sworn I was just addressing and stamping my holiday cards and here we go again.
For me personally, 2016 was a particularly trying year. I recently promised myself that I would turn things around and seize every fun or interesting opportunity that came my way. Whether it was learning a new skill, practicing an old hobby, or simply reconnecting with friends—I was determined to put my energy into rebuilding my life.
When my old college roommate, Tracy, posted about an upcoming cruise to the Dominican Republic for an incredible deal, I immediately sent her a message: I’m in! We’d been talking for years about a girl’s trip, but could never seem to justify the time away, planning, or expense. For just under $300 we could spend 7 Days escaping the cold weather and exploring one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean. But most of all, I was excited to have girl-talk by the pool while working on my tan. I booked my trip, finally bought that swimsuit that had been in the virtual shopping cart all month, and prepared to checkout. Island paradise here I come!
Fast forward to day three of my island getaway and imagine the scene: I was wearing sneakers and jeans; I reeked of bug spray and was covered in dirt alongside a group of total strangers, Tracy nowhere in sight! I was certainly working on my tan, my farmer’s tan. What I hadn’t realized when I was so eager to “put myself out there” was that the journey I’d signed up for was not a typical Caribbean cruise. It was a Fathom cruise. What’s a Fathom cruise, you ask? It’s the vacation you never knew you always wanted!
From the moment I stepped on the ship, I could tell that this was going to be a different kind of cruise. The writing was on the wall, literally. I’d passed a giant mural that read: “What Happens Here can Change Everything.” After the typical safety drills we were prompted to meet with our cohorts, a group of randomly assigned travelers who would be coming together at different pulses throughout the journey. The group was led by what Fathom refers to as Impact Guides: people on the ship whose sole purpose is to bring you through onboard and on ground activities, help you get the most out of your experience, and make sure you’re basically having an amazing time. It was in the cohort briefing that I finally started to understand what I was in for. During our time on the ground in Puerto Plata, travelers had the opportunity to share experiences with local Dominicans by participating in Impact Activities—one of seven offerings aimed to support environmental, education, or economic development initiatives.
The message was encouraging: we as travelers would be building off the efforts of those that came before us and helping shape the efforts for those that could come after. Secretly though, I was worried I was going to spend my vacation working. Being that I had pool-time and a tan on the agenda, I signed up for an Impact Activity for the morning of our first day on land and saved the rest of the afternoon to veg out. I opted to participate in RePapel – a woman’s recycling co-op that turned waste into craft paper.
As we loaded the bus from Amber Cove, the destination port of Puerto Plata, to the RePapel site, I was surprised at the diversity of the travelers around me. We had a family with three teenagers and their grandparents. There was a group of college kids who were on fall break and a bunch of solo travelers. The ride to RePapel along a dirt and trash-filled road was bumpy and many of the locals were waving to us as we drove by. I was surprised by the conditions I saw, I’d always thought that the Dominican Republic was a bustling tourist island, but I wasn’t prepared to see some of the conditions just a few miles away from the port.
We arrived at a building that looked like a typical home in the area, but newly constructed. As we debarked from the bus, a group of women in green aprons lined the entryway, clapping and singing as travelers took to their seats. Once seated, the women began to share a bit about themselves in Spanish with members of Fathom’s partner and NGO, Entrena, translating. One by one the woman all shared similar tales of how fortunate they felt not having to make the hours-long drive to Santa Domingo to find work as maids. Through Fathom and Entrena, they were able to build a centralized location close to their families to meet and do their work of creating recycled craft paper.
During our time at RePapel we participated in the paper recycling process by separating into stations. The women pick up the waste paper from area offices that would have otherwise thrown it out. As we sat around separating the useable parts from the unusable parts we communicated with one another in broken English and Spanish. They shared stories about their children, and listen as we told stories about ours.
At the end of just a few short hours we’d collectively made about 400 pieces of paper that would be used for the women to create and sell things like stationary and notecards. On the way home the bus ride was energized. We were talking about how we could recreate this activity back home and make our own paper too! Travelers were starting to share what Impact Activity they were headed to in the afternoon and honestly, I felt some FOMO when I shared that I’d be spending the rest of the afternoon by the pool. No part of my impact activity had felt like work, in fact, I was sad when it was time to leave. Before I broke out the swimsuit I went to the Explorer’s Desk onboard and signed up for activities the next day.
Amber Cove is the newest port in the Caribbean and opened in October 2015. The best part about a Fathom trip is that unlike a normal cruise, you stay in one location when you’re in the DR, so you get to settle in.
There are a number of restaurants with stunning vistas, shops selling local Dominican goods (read: rum!), a zipline, two pools, a water slide and even cabanas situated over the water that that can be rented. In the spirit of a Fathom traveler, I struck up a conversation with the stranger next to me- a man covered in tattoos that looked like he might be more at home on a Harley Davidson than a cruise ship. His name was Steve It turns out this was his annual family vacation and his daughters chose this cruise after hearing about it from classmates.. They were with his wife at another impact activity teaching English to local Dominican kids not too far away. Tomorrow they’d be on my same impact activity that I had just signed up for, installing concrete floors in a home. Steve hadn’t planned to join them during the days, but after about 20 minutes of sharing how amazing my morning was, I convinced him to join us. When the afternoon activities got back to Amber Cover, we shared the news with his family, who had coincidently been on the same activity as Tracy and has already made plans to sit together at dinner that night. The ship’s capacity is only 704, so there’s a real sense of community as you start to recognize familiar faces from throughout the week.
After a night of authentic Dominican cuisine and sharing stories from the day, we slept soundly and prepared for the next days adventure.
We boarded the bus and rode deeper into a similar neighborhood to where we were the day before. We arrived at a cluster of homes and in the streets were greeted by many locals of all ages. Our guide from IDDI, another NGO partner of Fathom’s told us it was a special day, and that together we would work to create a floor for his great uncle’s home. The family introduced themselves to us and showed us the process of how we’d mix water with a concrete mix and create a human chain to distribute that mix via buckets to the house. From there, a local mason would pour the concrete and level it. Then, they rolled up their sleeves, grabbed a shovel, and side-by-side we got to work.
Throughout the day the crowd grew. Young Dominican kids from the neighborhood started to show up and help out. Unfortunately my Spanish is minimal, but we found commonality in pop culture references. “Do you like Michael Jackson?” I asked, and then suddenly he broke out into the moonwalk and then pointed to me. Needless to say we both broke out into smiles when I fell on top a heap of sand. Then, we moved onto thumb wars. Between passing the pail or mixing the grout, I was communicating in the common language of shared experiences. Me, a 40-something year old single woman, and Ivan, a 9-year-old Dominican boy who started out shy until he was beating me in thumb wars.
In just a few short hours while we were having snacks and waiting for the cement to dry, the facilitator brought us to the house and we saw what all of our efforts had achieved. The family had a foundation that allow them to lead a healthy life inside their home and continue to build on what we together had created. I hugged Ivan, who it turns out would be living in the house we just cemented. As I walked away back to the bus my eyes welled with tears, but not because of the sad conditions I was surrounded by. It was hard to explain. In just a few hours of my vacation, I was able to be part of improving someone’s life for the better. But I couldn’t help but wonder how my life was changing. It dawned on me that so far, I hadn’t moped, or felt sorry about my own personal situation. I’d felt a true sense of community with a bunch of complete strangers. I participated in free workshops onboard that taught me skills that I could use in life and at home, and yes, I even worked on my tan and relaxed by the pool. Most of all though, I saw people come together in a way I’d never experienced: a local community working towards a greater good, a family getting to know each other in a whole new way, and strangers sharing conversations and forming bonds. Suddenly 2016 didn’t seem all that bad after-all.
If you’re looking for an experience that surprises you and is equal parts fun, relaxation, exploration and adventure, or if you’re looking to get out of your headspace for a while, then check out Fathom. It may just be the vacation you never knew you always wanted.