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).

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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;)).

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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:

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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:

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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,

Kristin

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!

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