Bathing Suits & Boots in the Dominican Republic

I’m no stranger to volunteering or public service. After all, I’m a teacher. But the next adventure I’m about to have is making me think about why I’ve dedicated my life to service–to teaching others, to doing good work in my community and my university, to engaging my students in community activism projects that promote social justice, the good work of non-profits, and the value of connecting across academic and public spaces.

Since I started teaching, I’ve been doing all kinds of advocacy work, getting my students and me involved in literary projects, immigrant and refugee centers, and no-kill cat shelters, setting up writing partnerships with at-risk high school students, and helping generate writing materials for startup nonprofits. It’s one of the most rewarding and meaningful kind of experiential work we can do as writing teachers–to take our talents and bring them to the world.

For instance, here we are this past semester, reading books to kindergarteners in downtown San Pedro, Los Angeles.

My students and I volunteering at a Los Angeles elementary school
My students and I volunteering at a Los Angeles elementary school

Yet, I realize that even as I’m writing this, there’s another side to me.

At the end of the day, I’m not just a public servant–I’m also a die-hard, unabashedly selfish travel writer bent on seeing as much of the world as she possibly can. I’d give up a class in a minute for a trip to Israel; I’d put aside grading if inspiration hits and I have to bang out the stirrings of an idea for a new travel essay; I’d rearrange my summer to accommodate for a trip (actually, I just did that).

Floating down the Danube in Serbia two weeks ago

It’s not lost on me that these are selfish things, but there’s also a part of me that whispers, timidly, that knowing these things doesn’t make me a bad person. I don’t have to dedicate myself to others all the time; after all, my heart needs to flutter every once in a while, too. And I’m still at a point in my life where I can do these things, where my freelance career, my teaching career, and my personal life have aligned ever-so-perfectly for these months so as to allow me a little time to heal from a spectacularly bad professional year and and to come to grips with the fact that, come end of summer, I’ll be moving–and starting all over–again, on the other side of the country.

So, public servant and traveler. In the past, I have traveled in ways that stroke both of these egos, teaching English in Colombia, working with international students in Malta, shopping only at local markets and buying local handmade goods. But I have never done it short-term; I have never taken a trip that emphasizes volunteering. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know if it works.

On the one hand, I’m thinking through the ethics of travel (ALL THE TIME), grappling with whether or not we as “gazers” can “gaze” without exoticizing another, and at the same time, I’m coming around to the idea that travel is often a joyous act. I don’t want to feel guilty for loving it. I want to feel invigorated by speaking about it, by asking questions about it, by participating in it as fully and completely as I can, with open eyes and an open heart. I want to share the messiness and beauty of meeting others, of experiencing new ways of being and living, with my world, because I believe it is crucial for us to have these conversations.

So that’s the question I’m asking myself today. Can combining public service and travel work short-term? Can I eat a ton of really delicious food on a cruise ship and then build a concrete floor?

Carnival Cruises’ newest project, the Fathom line, believes I can. Next week, I’m taking one of my best friends–grad school roommie, fellow writer, and traveling partner-in-crime Alison–to find out.

Alison and I have met in 2008 when she moved to Tucson, and since then, we’ve traveled all over the Southwest together, hiked all over a bunch of mountains, swam in seas and oceans, met up on the East and West coasts on more than one occasion, and headed down to Mexico in our cars with nothing but an Airbnb reservation and a vague idea of where we were going. Our husbands co-wrote their first book together. We’ve done a lot of cool stuff together.

So, I knew she’d be the perfect person to take along. (Plus, we’re supposed to keep each other on our summer writing schedules….we’ll see how well we stick to it when the beach beckons us;)).

Alison and I hanging out in our beach hats in Mexico

Fathom’s Intended Mission

In this, their inaugural season, Fathom has set up journeys to both the Dominican Republic and Cuba (both sailing out of Miami) in the hopes of blending the surreal and temporary life of cruising with the harsh realities of life in the parts of the Caribbean past the golden sands and turquoise waters through something they call “impact travel.” Of course, I’m no stranger to the different sides of the “voluntourism” debate, the one that questions the ways that identity, privilege, class, and race intersect in complicated ways when white Westerners go to places of color and try to “save” them. I’ve talked with friends around the world who have been the “recipients” of said programs, who’ve experienced how terrible it feels to see tourists come in, work for a few days, take a bunch of photographs of them, and then leave feeling good because they believe they’ve made a difference.

So what is Fathom doing differently?

Here’s what they say on their website: 

“Every Fathom journey is based on our sincere belief that the person-to-person connection is among the strongest catalysts for transformation. What sets Fathom apart is the long-term, systematic partnership approach with its partner countries paired with the unique business model that allows for sustained impact and lasting development.”

Their formula is People + Passion + Partnership = Enduring Social Impact. The site goes on to state that participants will “work side by side with local residents (my emphasis) in existing programs that focus on improving the lives of children, families and communities.” This interested me, especially the use of the preposition “with” and the focus on collaboration with “existing programs.” There was no mention of “saving,” of “poor people,” and there were no exploitative photographs of people of color being stood over by white people. But who were these local partners and these existing organizations?

On the “Meet Our Partners” page, there are links to the two lead impact partners, Entrena and IDDI, two nonprofit organizations that work exclusively in the Dominican Republic to enhance local well-being and social projects. I looked up both websites, and here’s what I learned:

Fathom’s Partners: Entrena & IDDI

Recently, Entrena, who has been in existence for 25 years, has hosted students from Texas A&M who are working on global heath initiatives, held employment fairs for local youth through the Alerta Joven (At-Risk Youth Project), funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), hosted summer camps for young children of refugee and expatriate families in Caribbean nations, and partnered with the Major League Baseball Association to create a program called MLB en la Comunidad that is focused on improving the lives of Dominican youth who hope to become baseball players. Their projects have generated 30 million dollars in sustainable development for the Dominican Republic, a number that seems very impressive to me. I clicked around some more and learned that the organization was started by John Seibel, a Peace Corps volunteer after he spent time living and working in the Dominican Republic in the early 1970s, and that Entrena is now run by both he and his wife, Sobeya. On their staff page, too, I noticed something else I particularly liked: they not only list bios and photos of their office workers, but they also feature their drivers and concierge staff. Too often these critical members of an organization do not get recognized, but on Entrena’s site, their names and bodies are included.

The other main partner, IDDI, el Instituto Dominicano de Desarrollo Integral, only has a website in Spanish, so I’ll sum up what I read for those of you who don’t speak Spanish. The Instituto was started in 1984 as a nonprofit dedicated to “amortiguar la pobreza tanto en las zonas rurales como urbanas,” or, eliminating Dominican poverty in both rural and urban areas. Roughly translated, their mission is similar to Entrena, in that they wish to contribute to the well-being of Dominican society by creating new opportunities, promoting dialogue across constituencies and create long-lasting social change, to identify and tackle not only problems but find their underlying causes, and to create a space where people can live productively and creativity. Their projects and partnerships are generally focused in the areas of public health, climate change, sustainability, biodiversity, youth, and humanitarian aid, and their website highlights plenty of these projects and how they’ve met (or are still working on) their goals.

These are organizations I can get behind. In fact, I’ve already starting thinking: How can I get my students involved in these projects next year, too?

Where We’re Headed

Over the course of a week, we’ll be cruising out from Miami, spending 4 days in the Dominican Republic, and then cruising back. Here’s the map as it appears on Fathom’s website:

Voyage map – from Miami to the DR to Miami

During the days we’re cruising, we’ll be doing things cruisers do–attending lectures, sunning ourselves, taking yoga classes, and eating…a lot. Fathom serves small servings of local, sustainable food, which makes me happy, as I’ve never been comfortable with the amount of waste generated on the bigger cruise ships. The Adonia holds about 700 people, so it’s still going to be the biggest cruise ship I’ve ever been on.

Projects I’m Signed Up For

Every traveler can sign up for three “impact activities,” or day excursions that are focused on health, education, or business. Since I’m already a teacher, I decided against working with children or volunteering to practice English with students and instead chose activities that I thought would be both thought-provoking to me and helpful to the community.

On their website, they offer a sample itinerary, and it looks a little something like this:


Here’s what we’ve chosen to do with our mornings:

Cacao and Women’s Chocolate Cooperative

This local women’s cooperative is actively involved in the cultivation of organic chocolate (cacao) plants, an important source of income for the Puerto Plata region. We’ll be spending the day working on the complete production cycle, from planting and cultivating the organic cacao trees, to preparing the raw materials, to producing and packaging the final product for sale. Fathom’s website states that by participating in this project, we can contribute toward helping hire more local women and providing critical income in a region with limited employment opportunities.

Concrete Floors in Community Homes

In the homes of poorer communities, the common basic dirt floors are a genuine health risk. They pick up dust during the dry season and retain dampness and puddles in the rainy season. And they’re impossible to clean, which means that anything spilled on the floor or tracked into the house, however unhygienic, tends to stay put.

Every month, homes in a different small area of a community will be chosen to be upgraded with new concrete floors. There are also plenty of other tasks at hand: painting the house, fixing broken furniture, cleaning and improving the outside surroundings, making improvements to common areas in the community, or planting fruit trees as part of a beautification effort that can also provide long-term nutritional benefits. The overall project will also include the addition of latrines and mosquito screens to reduce the prevalence of waste-borne and mosquito-borne diseases. Fathom’s website states that we’ll be working alongside the homeowners and other members of the surrounding community, including children and teenagers, helping them create surroundings they’ll be proud to maintain and take care of.

Water Filter Production

One solution already being implemented is the production and distribution of clay water filters, which mean far fewer children and adults will miss school or work due to water-borne illnesses. On this day, we will help out with the entire filter-making process: gathering and mixing the raw materials, working the clay, shaping and firing the filters, testing the quality of the finished product, and distributing the finished filters to needy families.

Thoughts So Far?

I’m pretty excited. For one thing, I get to spend a week on a new cruise line and I get to spend a week with one of my best friends. (Though, seriously, we could be hanging out in the kitchen cooking dinner and it would be amazing). We’ll have our afternoons and evenings free to explore, so I’m hoping to squeeze in some city touring, some waterfalls and some hiking, and some local restaurants.

More than that, though, I’ll get to meet some new people, eat some good food, do some interesting work, help out where I can, and see more of Puerto Plata than just those heart-stopping sandy white beaches. I’m hoping to make some lasting connections with the organizations Fathom is working with and set up a service project for my students next year.

Have any of you been to the Dominican Republic? Can you share any tips or must-sees for me?

Yours in travel,


Come join me in the DR! Booking a Fathom cruise is super easy and they’re offering amazing deals for their inaugural season. I don’t get a commission or anything if you book with them, but I thought I’d include the link in case you were interested, too!

How I Packed for Two Weeks in Eastern Europe in a Carry-On

This post is inspired by a lively discussion I had on Facebook the other day after telling my friends that I’d challenged myself to pack for a two-week Eastern European Viking river cruise in nothing but my 19-inch Delsey Chatelet carry-on. In the spirit of sharing, here’s exactly how I did it.

In other words, here’s how to cram 52 items into a carry-on that’s about the size of my cat (photo evidence below).

The Items

To begin with, I needed to actually think through my itinerary, something I rarely do when I travel (I know, I know…). My usual process is to dump a bunch of clothes I like wearing into a suitcase and then sit on the poor overstuffed thing to try and zip it up. Anyone who knows me personally knows this to be true.

So for this trip, I looked at the average weather in each country I’d be visiting – Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary – and then thought about what I’d actually be doing there. Temps would be ranging from a chilly 55 to a balmy 89. Because I was traveling with Viking, I knew I’d be doing a lot of walking on the city tours, so I knew I’d need some city-appropriate clothes with sleeves (for cathedrals, synagogues, and the like). I’d also signed up for a couple of excursions to the Croatian and Bulgarian countrysides, too, so I knew I’d need some comfortable, warm-weather clothes with good hiking shoes. From past experience, I also knew I wouldn’t need a lot of formal clothes or high heels, as the dress code tends to be incredibly informal on river cruises.

I perused my closet and decided on a color scheme: monochromatic with a splash of pink. Why pink? Who knows…I pulled out a pink top with polka dots and thought it’d be cute for a city walk, so I decided to base things around that.

Then, the hard part: anything that didn’t match this color scheme didn’t make the cut. Here’s everything, laid out, so you can see exactly how everything fit together. As you can see, I could pair any shirt with any pair of pants and any pair of shoes. Four splashes of pink helped to “lighten up” the greys, blacks, and blues.


This was my master list:

  • 2 jackets – one jean and one faux leather
  • 2 pairs of pants – blue jeans & light khakis
  • 1 pair of yoga pants
  • 2 pairs of shorts – blue jeans & khakis
  • 3 dresses – one cocktail dress, one sundress, one t-shirt dress
  • 2 cotton cardigans – black & blue
  • 1 sweatshirt
  • 1 sweater
  • 1 long-sleeved shirt
  • 6 short-sleeved shirts
  • 2 spaghetti-strap undershirts
  • 1 silk bathrobe
  • 1 infinity scarf
  • 1 romper
  • 1 bathing suit
  • 4 pairs of shoes – ballet flats, nice sandals, hiking sandals, flat tennis shoes
  • 13 pairs of underwear
  • 5 pairs of socks
  • 3 bras – 2 regular, one sports

And here’s how I got it all into a 19-inch carry-on.

The Process

The first thing I did was use a small packing cube (thanks to my friend Molly who let me borrow one of hers!) to roll up all my t-shirts:


Then, I folded my shorts in half and put them on top of the t-shirts:


The next step was to start putting items into my actual suitcase. I folded my dresses in half and laid them in the bottom of the flat side of the suitcase and put the packing cube on top. Then, I filled the rest of the space up with black ballet flats and the two undershirts:


Then, I moved over to the other side. Because there’s a locking mechanism and two poles running down the length of the suitcase, this side is a little trickier. I started by rolling up my pants and cardigans and lined the sides with those. In the middle, I folded my sweaters. On the outer edges, I rolled up the romper and the bathrobe. Once everything was in, I peppered the socks around the edges wherever there was room.


Then, I folded up the jean jacket and laid it flat on top of everything. All the underwear, bras, and bathing suit went into the zipper pouch on the other side. I left out the other jacket, the scarf, the yoga pants, a black t-shirt, and the tennis shoes–I wore all of this stuff on the plane.


The last step was to toss in my hairbrush, makeup bag, and toiletry kit. I knew from sailing with Viking before that I wouldn’t need a hair dryer (thank goodness, as I have no idea how I would have fit that in here), so I found it pretty easy to cram all the bathroom stuff in there.


Then, all I had to do was zip it up.



The End Result?


AMAZING. I NEVER, EVER thought that 1) I could be so discerning and well-planned with my packing, or 2) that I could pack that much stuff into one tiny suitcase. I used almost everything–the romper never made it out, sadly–and I was really happy that I’d brought two jackets and a couple different kinds of tops. Because Viking is a really casual cruise, I knew I wouldn’t need a lot of fancy clothes, so I really cut back on the “nice stuff” this time around. As I suspected, I only needed one nice cocktail dress for my aloha dinner with Ryan in Budapest.

Was it a perfect list?

Not completely. I would do a couple of things differently next time. For one thing, I’d bring an extra pair of jeans, as it was cooler than I thought it would be and ended up wearing those jeans probably eight or nine out of twelve days. I’d also bring more underwear, just so I’d have a few extra pairs, and would probably leave the bathrobe at home (I only wore it a couple of times on lazy mornings in our cabin). Also, I’d probably take out one cardigan and add in two more t-shirts to give a little more variety to what I wore on top. Things were feeling a little repetitive by day ten….

Anyway, thanks to Delsey, I think it’s safe to say I’ve changed the way I pack forever. No more cramming a million clothes that I think I *might* need into a giant suitcase that will almost always weigh more than 50 pounds, leaving me tossing out items at the last minute at the airport. Those days are SO over. From now on, it’s lightweight traveling for me!

(Here’s me at the Hilton Budapest, wearing the same outfit I flew over in!)


Also, as a side note, I think two little furry guys in my life were pretty happy to see me get home yesterday. This is Giuseppe and Luigi 😀


Do you have any packing tips that have worked for you? I’d love to hear them!!

Yours in travel,