By Simons Chase
I have to confess my skepticism when I decided to cruise aboard Carnival’s new cruise line, Fathom, on a “voluntourism” or “social impact” journey to the Dominican Republic.
After all, in an industry that seems to be obsessed with size and endless buffets, I was not quite sure what to make of this new, small cruise line with a big mission.
Fathom promises to be a, “new kind of cruise that combines your love of travel with your desire to make a difference.”
Is it really possible to combine a cruise product with a social mission in one offering?
Launched in May, Fathom’s only ship, the Adonia, plies the waters of the Caribbean in alternating weekly journeys to the Dominican Republic and Cuba. The ship was built in 2001 and has retained the refined English style she acquired in her original sailings in and around Europe.
She offers all the best elements of a cruise including great service, good food and onboard programming that is both relevant to the mission and entertaining.
With a maximum capacity of about 700 passengers, the Fathom is a striking alternative new product to the inflationary thinking that has gripped the passions of the other cruise industry players engaged in a “size gap” warfare mentality – the latest ship in the battle for size dominance is Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas, capable of ferrying 6,400 people, and is the largest cruise ship in the world — at least until next year.
According to Tara Russell, Fathom’s President, “Travel is a really incredible form of connection and transformation.”
Rowing against a contrary current is what Fathom does best.
My first pleasant surprise was how little interruption there was from electronic devices among the passengers.
The ship’s activities, along with the commitment and dedication of the crew, created a lot of engagement and sharing among a diverse group of cruisers. One of my favorite activities was an art class (that included wine); there was learning and laughter among strangers that I felt almost nostalgia for.
In the three hours of assisted painting, I forgot all about the world we left behind. I was relieved to be free of the constant offerings of instinctual response to stimulus we face in so many other settings, terrestrial and oceanic.
Other passengers spoke highly of the Spanish lessons and the visual story telling class that teaches the creative and practical use of your phone’s camera – together with the use of social media.
On the ground, Fathom partners with IDDI and Entrena, two Dominican development organizations. These organizations know the people, the culture, and the needs of the island nation. I found the employees of these two organizations to be professional and responsive to travelers as well as the local communities involved in the impact activities. Bottled water, good food and adequate restrooms were always easy to access during the excursions.
My favorite excursion was a project to mix and install concrete floors for a couple living in the El Javillar community in Puerto Plata, about 30 minutes by bus from the cruise port.
First let me dispel any concern you might have about “construction work.” You don’t have to do any heavy lifting if you cannot or choose not to. Some people formed a line that handed off small buckets of concrete; others used shovels to mix concrete and fill the buckets.
There are some technical aspects of concrete mixing and pouring that makes installing concrete floors in simple wooden structures a challenge. This aspect of the construction was handled very capably by the local development staff who are skilled at this sort of work. We volunteers contributed $20 plus 3-4 hours of time. It is the cost and technical challenge that makes it impossible for the people of El Javillar to install concrete floors on top of the dirt floors most live in.
As we transformed Eriberta and Chavez’s home to a safer, cleaner place to live, the neighbors slowly emerged from their homes to see what was happening. The children of the neighborhood led the way.
Eventually, the older children and adults started mixing with the volunteers, aided by translation and interpretation help from our guides.
It didn’t take long for the human side of the residents of this poor, riverside community to color our concrete floor mission with texture.
Amidst the dirt and concrete mixing, I witnessed Eriberta passing a brightly-colored spool of threat to her neighbor. A few minutes later, the purpose of the thread sharing was apparent when Eriberta emerged from her neighbor’s home carrying the infant child of her neighbor.
The neighbor used the tread to sew the child’s headband together. I surmised that the child’s mother gave the child to Eriberta because showing off her new baby in Eriberta’s arms would get more attention than doing it herself. I got the sense that these people all share child rearing responsibilities and therefore a mother’s pride is shared interchangeably.
Later, a child volunteer held the infant child of another of Eriberta’s neighbors. Children eight years and older are permitted on the cruise, and I highly recommend taking children on this journey.
Other activities include tree planting in a rain forest, paper making in women’s cooperative and water filter installation in private homes.
Back aboard the Adonia, the crew helped me clean the mud from my shoes.
All of us on the concrete floor project that day agreed it was an amazing experience, and we all felt satisfied that Fathom delivered on its promise to offer a rewarding impact travel experience – along with a great cruise.
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