The smiles tell you that this is important. And the hugs ... so many hugs.
About 50 of us had arrived to a tiny town just outside of Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic to take part in an "impact activity" at RePapel, a co-op of 16 women who produce recycled paper products.
We filed off two buses that had crept as close as they could to the factory (a small home, really) along narrow streets in the tiny neighborhood and began walking toward the rising sounds of singing women.
It was obvious we were in the right place -- and were about to have an experience to remember. The entire staff greeted our arrival -- clapping, dancing and smiling.
We were the first groups to come with Carnival's Fathom Travel during the new cruise line's debut in the Dominican Republic touting a new way to travel with a purpose.
The weeklong cruise experience is certainly groundbreaking. But the question kept arising among fellow travelers as we made our way down to the Caribbean island during two days of sailing out of Miami: What will be the real impact?
During the journey, we sailed for two days to reach Amber Cove, Carnival Corp.'s new private cruise port at Puerto Plata. Once we arrived, we set out for three and half days of interactions known as the impact activities that aim to help lift the conditions of selected businesses, projects and community members in this region along the northern coast of the Dominican Republic.
The long-term effects of these passenger visits and interactions will be tracked to measure their effectiveness. Our group planted 351 mangrove trees for instance, and we manufactured 27 water filters and processed 35 sheets of paper.
But the level of excitement from the people we met at their businesses and projects was overwhelmingly positive; they were excited about the prospects of having cruisers who want to come and use their valuable time to help out in their communities. This pride and hope also reached the resident facilitators and guides who met us each morning as we loaded up on our buses to head out to our various projects. Group sizes were limited each day, but most experiences were available on all days so people could rotate and try as many as possible.
Fathom shies away from using the word voluntourism to describe what the company is striving for, instead focusing on trying to generate an impact that is systemic and sustainable.
UPDATE and CRUISE SAVINGS: I have just been given an affiliate link from Fathom that gives you savings of up to $150 off of cruises to the Dominican Republic with Fathom. Click here to book the discounts, which can be combined with other offers and discounts on these cruises. If you are interested in this type of "impact cruising" and checking out the beautiful new Amber Cove port in the Dominican Republic this is a good way to save a few bucks and help me out a little too. As an affiliate, I get a commission for any bookings you make at this page. Thanks and always travel happy!
Although, it probably has little to do with how many holes we were able to dig to plant a row of mangrove trees. Or how many sheets of paper we were able to clumsily shape out of pulp and roll into sheets or how many water filters we eventually were able to beat into shape out of clumps of clay and other raw materials.
Sure, we chipped in some labor and had a lot of fun. But we never were sure that the time it took to teach us the process wasn't slowing things down more than the benefits our work might provide. I came to realize, however, we were making a big difference by being able to interact and engage with the people of the Dominican Republic.
The country, especially the region where Fathom Travel is helping, is extremely poor. But they might prefer to think of themselves as humble. They don't seek pity and are immensely grateful for the assistance they receive.
When we travel to help, we give legitimacy to the work these people are doing. If it's important enough for people to come from far away to help plant seedlings to help reforestation, then residents who see us doing so will start to realize that they should have a greater interest in conservation in their neighborhoods, in order to improve their living conditions and health.
If a group of Americans is spending money and time to help manufacture clay water filters to provide to families, these communities will learn more about the need for clean drinking water. The impact goes both ways, too. Not only will Dominicans broaden their world view by learning about us, we will take our experiences back home and consider what we have seen, what it might inspire in us as far as ideas for how to donate more time or live in a different way. Or simply be appreciative for what we have. "This is what Fathom is about," Carnival Corp. President and CEO Arnold Donald said. "People who travel bring the world closer."
We all joined in the song and dance routine as we completed our work, and when it was time to go, it was time for more hugs, a group photo and one last song. The people we met in the Dominican Republic might have a humble existence, but I saw that their lives overflow with energy, spirit, love, smiles and those friendly embraces.
Thanks for reading and Travel happy!