A Different Kind of Cruise – #traveldeep
#Traveldeep is the hashtag of a different kind of travel experience. Last week, I returned from a cruise to the Dominican Republic with Fathom Travel. Yes, they are the ones that were recently in the news after being the first US-based cruise ship to travel to Cuba. That all sounds pretty cool, but how can a cruise and #traveldeep in one sentence make any sense? Why would Fathom choose this hashtag? For me, traveling deep means that I have the time to immerse myself into a culture, learn about its cultures and traditions, live like a local and pick up at least a little bit of the language. A cruise, or so I thought, would be the exact opposite of that. But Fathom doesn’t offer a regular, same old, same old cruise. They offer something different. Let me show you, how this was a different kind of cruise and you can decide for yourself, if #traveldeep makes sense.
#traveldeep(er) and Make an Impact
Fathom Travel combines two of my passions: Travel and helping others. Their 7 day cruise to the Dominican Republic only takes you to one port: Amber Cove, on the North side of the island, close to Puerto Plata. You will stay there from Tuesday afternoon to Friday afternoon, so you have 3 days compared to the 8-10 hours you get on a regular cruise stop. While 3 days in a country still does not allow you to really get to know a country, it is more than just the few hours you usually get.
The other most notable difference that sets Fathom apart from the other cruise offers are their off-shore activities. In addition to the regular fun stuff like snorkeling trips and beach club getaways, they offer so-called Impact activities. Those are volunteering activities that support local NGOs and try to make a difference in the local economy. You can sign up for things like:
- Water Filtration System (I did that and it was great. We made 30 water filters that now provide 150 people with clean drinking water. Blog post coming soon)
- Chocolate Factory
- Pouring concrete slaps in local houses
- Teaching English in a local community
- Teaching English in a school (This was my second impact activity and I loved it. Can’t wait to share my blog post with you!)
- Paper Factory and Crafts
I have to admit that I was very skeptical at first in regards to those impact activities. Don’t get me wrong, I love volunteering and I have done it quite a bit here in the US, but never abroad. I also heard horror stories about volunteering companies that do more harm than good in the communities they promised to support. How could we as volunteers make an actual difference in just a few hours? Would we be more in the way than be helpful? Would they have to “re-do” our work after we leave and start over?
When we left Wednesday morning for our first activity, I decided to keep an open mind, and wrote down some probing questions that I wanted to find answers to. I don’t want to take away too much from my upcoming blog posts about the Impact activities, but I can tell you this: I was really surprised on how well organized the activities were and how much work we actually got done. The tasks themselves were simple, so we didn’t have to waste much time with explanation. I also spoke to the impact guides as well as the people working in the factory and school and they seemed genuinely thankful for the extra sets of hands helping out. We worked together with locals, laughing, communicating in a mix of Spanish, English and French (ups) and learning little glimpses about each other and our lives. Fathom also works with NGOs that are based in the Dominican Republic, so they are more in touch with what kind of help is most useful for the communities.
Did we make a difference? I don’t know yet. I think time will tell and I am looking forward to following the stories of other Fathom travelers and their observations about their experience in the Dominican Republic.
#traveldeep in Your Spare Time
Aside from the impact activities, we also had about a day and a half to explore on our own. When you travel, you have a choice on what kind of experience you want to have. Do you want to relax in your resort and enjoy modern and western standards, have a cocktail by the pool and write some postcards to your friends at home? There is nothing wrong with that. But I imagine that after a while, all those resorts start looking the same. Is there really that much difference between a resort vacation in Thailand or the Caribbean? If the only locals you meet are your waiter and maid, are you really experiencing the country, learning about its culture and get a feel for what matters to its people? When you arrive at Amber Cove, the designated cruise port for Fathom, you can do just that. There is a resort, where you can do some zip lining, relax by the pool and rent a cabana. You can hop on a bus tour and look at the locals from behind the passenger window. You can eat at touristy places, where, when you look around, you find yourself among a bunch of other tourists and expats.
Or you can take the hike outside the Amber Cove compound and hop on a local bus or a Publicar and travel like the locals do. It’ll cost you about $1/person instead of $35 if you take the taxi within the Amber Cove compound. You can check of the sights on your list, or you can get lost in the city, its meandering streets and colorful buildings. How deep you travel depends on how much you are willing to push yourself outside your comfort zone. In my opinion, you can only understand a country and its people, if you live like them. During our time in the Dominican Republic, we still lived in our tourist bubble, because we spent our nights on the ship. But we spent as much time off the ship and immersed in the culture as possible. 3 days was not enought time to even scratch the surface, but you can get a first taste, depending on how deep you want to dive into the country.
#traveldeep on a Small Ship
The last Fathom Cruise #traveldeep experience was something I didn’t expect. It was the feeling of community on the ship. We met as fellow travelers, but we formed friendships and bonded much deeper than I have ever experienced on any of my travels before. By day 3, you walked into the dining room and you would stop at 3-4 tables, chitchatting with other travelers, asking them about their day and impact activities. By day 7, it took you half an hour or more to make it to your table. I met some amazing people on this cruise from all over the United States and abroad. We would share our stories and experiences, tips and anecdotes when we returned to the ship. Sharing our experiences traveling and volunteering together really had an impact on us and how we interacted with each other.
It almost felt like back in High School. There were the Fathom Five, the Fathom Family and some other groups that started to hang out together, yet always welcoming and inclusive rather than exclusive. You’d always run into a familiar face on board the ship. That wasn’t hard because the Adonia is a rather small ship, with only a capacity of 700 passengers. So if you are a solo traveler, this is a cruise that I would highly recommend. The feeling is hard to put into words. You have experience it yourself. Some of my fellow Fathom peeps compared it how they felt after Summer Camp, when they were children. When we left the ship on Sunday morning, we hugged and connected on Facebook, exchanged phone numbers and email addresses. If you have been on another cruise, you know this usually doesn’t happen.
Maybe it was because people had some common ground, a shared interest in volunteering abroad? Maybe it was that we had a shared topic to talk about, like the impact activities? Maybe it was the size of the ship or the open seating during dinner that encouraged us to get to know each other. Whatever it was, it was an amazing experience. I am thankful for meeting some amazing people who are kind and open minded, have an interest in helping others and learning about the world.
Fathom was a different kind of cruise and in this case I have to agree that #traveldeep and cruise in one sentence actually does make sense!
Would you consider a cruise that combines travel and volunteering? Have you ever had a feeling of community or #traveldeep moments during your travels? I would love to hear them in the comments!
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Disclosure: Fathom Travel invited me on this cruise, yet these opinions are 100% my own.