Barry Kaufman | April 22, 2016 5:04 PM ET
A Wonderful Moment of Clarity on Fathom's Inaugural Cruise
I’m on my second day in the Dominican Republic as part of Fathom’s inaugural cruise to the Dominican Republic. Fathom, in case you aren’t familiar, is based around the idea of impact travel. Essentially, you don’t just sail to a destination and see it from the bow of a ship or the comfort of a heavily fortified resort beach. Instead, with Fathom, the whole point of the journey is the difference you can make while you’re on it.
How you make this difference is through a series of impact activities – planting trees, helping children learn English, assisting in the production of locally produced and sourced chocolate and so on. Please don’t confuse it with run-of-the-mill voluntourism which, while helpful, generally provides temporary solutions to long-term problems at best (and creates dependence at worst).
Instead, Fathom worked with NGOs on the ground including the Dominican Institute for Integral Development (IDDI) and Entrena, both of which are based in the Dominican Republic and had a huge hand in developing these impact activities. Essentially, we as cruisers on Fathom act as human capital to help the Dominican Republic help itself.
But yes, in practice, you’re there to see the sites and do some volunteer work, aka voluntourism. You might think I’m splitting hairs, but it’s a pretty crucial distinction.
At any rate, on day one I was able to participate in reforestation efforts being spearheaded by IDDI. I’m not altogether sure how much of a difference my own efforts made, as I largely placed myself in charge of transporting bags of compost bearing palm tree seedlings from one area to another. I personally may have done nothing more than give the wheelbarrow a day off, but our vivacious guide Ezequiel told us we as a group planted a record 1,373 trees. We were also the first group, so take our record-setting performance with a grain of salt.
It was a fantastic experience, but mostly because of the ride in. Driving through Puerto Plata, I saw faces smiling at our bus through barred windows. I saw children running alongside us waving, their feet never gaining a step where they didn’t tread on some piece of garbage thrown in the street. Homes in some cases were cobbled together with corrugated steel and spare wood, little more than lean-tos between a seemingly endless array of single-window sidewalk bancos and one-room mercados.
Yet there’s happiness. Seemingly impossible happiness, growing like a daisy through cracks in concrete.
It seems madness, to see such deplorable conditions playing host to such indelible light. But that’s Puerto Plata outside the waterslides and swim-up bars of Amber Cove. And as eye-opening as it was to see it on the ride in, I was still seeing it on the ride in. I was still viewing it from above, in my air conditioned shortcut between a few hours of sweat and an all-you-can-eat buffet.
I think a lot of us felt that way. Which was why we were so excited earlier today when the bus broke down.
We were driving to the day’s activity, which involved helping a group called Repapel make recycled paper. These incredible women have found a way, in a traditionally male-dominated society, to bring some money into the home by taking used office paper and recycling it. They then sell it back to, among others, the very offices who gave them the raw material to begin with. In the process, they provide a safe place for women to gain purpose and prosperity, while helping the environment.
About two minutes away from the Repapel site, as we were winding along increasingly narrow streets where tree branches scraped our roof and rusty steel roofs passed perilously close to our windows, our driver abruptly stopped behind a garbage truck (which was parked, in keeping with Dominican Republic traffic laws, wherever the driver felt like parking it).
After a few minutes of confusion, it turned out that not only was the way ahead impassible, the other bus in our group had broken down. Sure enough, a group of sturdy Dominicans suddenly materialized to help push the other bus backward off of the curb (how it got that way in the first place I never figured out).
The safest bet, it seemed, was to have us all walk as one group rather than leave one smaller group to fend for themselves. Not that anyone felt threatened in any way, but you never know. Regardless, everyone on our bus was thrilled. At last, we were given a chance to get out of the bus and onto the street, to really coexist with these people rather than watch them from behind our glass case like some kind of reverse zoo.
It was one of those truly unforgettable immersive experiences you dream of with every trip, and it happened because a bus broke down. It’s what Bob Ross would call a happy accident.
Walking the streets of Puerto Plata, you could almost see how those faces could beam so brightly. Sure there was garbage, there were stray dogs around nearly every corner, there were bars on the windows and gates drawn up around the front porch. But there was also beautiful sun, and music, and energy. There were families, generations deep, sharing a front porch in the middle of the day. There were children laughing.
There were all the things that, when you strip away the air conditioning and the comforts and the distractions of modern life, actually matter. There were all the things we desperately try to find in our own air conditioned, comfortable distracted lives.
We eventually made our way past our roadblock (a tanker truck seeping with tar had just finished paving some of the roads we were to cross) and found the women of Repapel waiting for us, cheering us in welcome.
And as astounding an experience as it was, as much as I’ll never forget the sight of my daughter learning how these women came together to create something for themselves, or the way we all spontaneously broke out into “La Bamba” as we worked, I really think those few minutes between the bus and Repapel will be what sticks with me.
For just a few minutes, the remarkable people of the Dominican Republic showed me what lies behind their endless smiles. It’s a simple dedication to things we’ve all forgotten really matter.
I’m still not sure what my impact was on them, but I’ll never forget their impact on me.
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