Ellen is a travel advisor at Seven Lands and Seas Travel in Alexandria, Virginia. She was thrilled and honored to sail with Fathom this May, and here she reflects on her transformative journey to the Dominican Republic and the power and potential of Fathom’s impact travel concept.
The second class of 5th graders had left and we all stood in a circle in the tiny little classroom and held hands as their teacher choked back tears and thanked us for giving our time to come help teach her students. The emotion was raw and palpable. Her voice cracked as she explained through watery eyes how much our help and contribution meant to her, both as a mother herself and the classroom mother to the precious children we worked with that morning. When she was done, we all took turns telling everyone what our favorite part of the day was with the kids. As one elder gentleman put it, this was “the most honorable cruise” he has ever been on to have the chance to give back in this way. And as another woman stated, “this collaboration between Fathom, Dominican organizations IDDI (Instituto Dominicano de Desarollo Integral, Inc.) and Entrena, and the local schools and community, may well be saving the future of the Dominican Republic.” The volunteer work that happens on a Fathom journey is no light work, and not to be taken lightly either.
When everyone had said their piece, I squeezed the hands of those next to me, lifted my head, took a deep breath and captured the moment in every sense I could – this is why I travel. There I was in an unfamiliar place, with people I had only just met and, in a matter of hours, I knew I would probably never see again. But despite our different worlds and circumstances, we shared an incredible experience and connected on a fundamentally human level. The best type of travel is one that bridges the gaps between us and that challenges us to step into another way of life and appreciate a new perspective. The best kind of travel leaves us marveling at the vast, incredible diversity of our world while at the same time humbled and in awe that, despite those differences, we are really all the same: unique in our own cultures, beliefs, personalities and situations, but bound by the power of compassion and the realization that we are all climbing the same mountain, just from different angles.
The Fathom experience does just that – effortlessly combining unlikely pairs and fostering a transformative travel experience. Most people wouldn’t think of volunteer projects when you say cruise; when you hear Dominican Republic, your first thought is probably of a beautiful beach and not rugged, impoverished communities. A Fathom cruise will change those reactions. If you ask me, there’s truly no better way to discover a place than by meeting and interacting with the local people- being invited into their homes, schools, and businesses- to see firsthand how they live and how they make a living. With Fathom, you really do “travel deep” as you connect with like-minded travelers, collaborate with local partner organizations, and contribute to making a measurable impact in the lives of the local residents.
Old + Young
A Fathom cruise is not marketed for a specific demographic or income level and it’s not just for single travelers or seasoned wanderers. Rather, the Fathom experience attracts people that want to learn, give and be transformed through travel. A Fathom cruise bridges together people of all ages. While on my journey, I met everyone from young solo travelers to retired friends and couples, to families with young children; all stages of life, but all there with a sincere desire to give back in a unique new way. The Fathom Impact Guides group travelers into small cohorts for preparatory and informational meetings, so even if you come aboard alone or with a companion, you’re sure to make fast friends onboard. If you are part of a group within your school, church or community that is looking for an extraordinary way to volunteer and bond, look no further than a Fathom social-impact journey.
Structure/Hard Work + Freedom/Fun
Preparing travelers for their work and experience in the Dominican Republic is very important, and the first day and a half at sea is dedicated to doing just that. Cohort meetings are scheduled each morning, with other optional preparatory classes (Spanish Phrases, Empowering English Tutoring, and Visual Storytelling to name a few) offered throughout the day to make sure you are ready and excited for the days ahead. But while the work of a Fathom traveler is taken seriously, there is plenty of room for freedom and flexibility to spend your days as you choose. The cruise kicks off with a sail away party and a night of live music, dancing, and games. Hours after my first morning meeting, I was lounging next to the pool reading a book that I checked out from the ship’s library. There is no shortage of entertainment- from wine and paint nights and ship scavenger hunts to photography courses and fitness classes, the various onboard activity options are exciting and engaging. And when all the important and informative meetings are through, there’s really no better way to prepare for a week of work than with a little R&R.
Even when it comes to work on-the-ground, travelers have a choice of which impact activities they would like to participate in each day, as well as a wide variety of fun shore excursions such as snorkeling, zip lining or taking an art and history tour. One morning you might be laying concrete floors in a home or planting trees in the mountains, only to find yourself floating in the pool or flying high on a zip line in the afternoon. All in all, a Fathom cruise is the perfect balance of work and play.
Statistics + Emotions
While the impact activity options vary widely, they all have an educational, economic and social focus. Through these channels, the results of the cumulative work of Fathom travelers is measurable and astounding. In just the first three Fathom sailings to the Dominican Republic, 6,060 seedlings were planted, which reduces soil erosion, improves local air and water pollution levels, and increases agricultural yields. Concrete floors were installed in seven homes, not only changing the daily lives for those families, but improving their health and sanitation conditions. And in just three weeks, 709 pounds of cacao nibs were cleaned and 12,733 chocolate bars were wrapped, which contributes to the productivity of the cacao cooperative and enables the women to focus on taking care of their families since they now have a steady income.
Most importantly, though, the impact can be felt in the pure joy and sincere gratitude of the Dominican people. Compared to the privileged life most of us live, the residents of Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic have so little. But true wealth is not measured by fortune, fancy houses, or accessibility to modern luxuries. Rather, it is determined by faith, health, and family, all bound by the ties of love and gratitude. In these ways, the Dominican people of Puerto Plata are incredibly prosperous. Their appreciation for our work as Fathom travelers was beyond expectation and genuine proof of the power and potential of the social-impact cruise concept. Impressive statistics aside, if you have any doubt that your work is really making a difference, count the number of times you hear the Dominican people thanking you during your impact activities, look into their eyes when they tell you their stories, or try to fight back a smile and tears of your own as you quickly become attached to this beautiful country and community.
Small Contributions + Big Impact
While your one hour of teaching the numbers in English to two classes of elementary students or the few pieces of paper you made at Repapel, the paper recycling cooperative, may not seem like much, multiply your efforts by the hundreds of fellow travelers on your cruise, and then by the number of trips the Adonia will make with that same strength each week it sails to the Dominican Republic. Those small efforts skyrocket and accumulate in their impact over time. As the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” Give a week of your time, a little effort, and a piece of your heart, and you will change more lives in more ways than you ever thought possible; Fathom that.