David Foster Wallace (RIP) and his hilarious essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again” on the “nearly-lethal comforts of cruises” shaped my opinion of cruises. In 1996, Harper’s Magazine asked Wallace to go on a cruise and write a long postcard back and the result was a hilariously snide series of paragraphs that made cruises sound like hell: floating germ factories of overconsumption. After reading the essay, I thought I would never go on a cruise. Plus, I’ve generally been an independent traveler who likes to get deep into the culture and meet people when I travel. Going on a cruise was not on my bucket list. More like my not-to-do-list.
When I got the opportunity to go on a “social impact cruise” for free this year with the newly formed wing of Carnival cruises Fathom Travel, dedicated to social impact travel, I had to wonder, do cruises and social impact go together? What does that even mean? Fathom invited me on as a blogger to spread the word to my readers and I thought, well, volunteer work on a cruise in the Carribbean. Interesting.
Fathom, a dot.org, it turns out, is a very unique newly launched line within Carnival, one of the largest cruise ship lines in the world. Founded by Tara Russell from Boise, Idaho, who has a background in startups and nonprofits, Fathom has a mission to combine personal growth, volunteerism, and travel, to bring out the greatness of human potential through travel, cultural immersion, and what they call “social impact” volunteerism.
Since I offer a transformative travel experience through my own 7-day Tango Adventure personal growth trip in Buenos Aires, I was curious to see how a big company would approach a transformative travel. Would the volunteer work feel genuine, and could it ever offset the environmental impact of a cruise ship?
Ever intrepid I decided to find out.
Mother-Daughter Bonding, Meeting Up in Miami
I invited my mother to join me, since I live in Buenos Aires and she lives in Rhode Island, this would be a chance for mother-daughter bonding. We would meet in Miami. My mother said yes but she told me later she was afraid she would hate being on a cruise. I felt the same way, but I had actually looked at the website and saw the cruise was integrating yoga, meditation, storytelling and design-thinking workshops along with service projects in the Dominican Republic. I nudged her along to keep an open mind, and so we made our travel plans and we met finally in downtown Miami, the day before the cruise was set to sail.
7 Days from Miami to the Dominican Republic, and What Would Happen???
The cruise would be 7 days long, Sunday to Sunday. We would start off from the Port of Miami, sail to the Dominican Republic docked for three days to do the service projects and tour the country, then sail back for a day and a half to return on Sunday.
The Sunday to embark finally came, and it was thrilling to finally be ready to see what “cruising,” which I would learn is a verb, is all about. I felt a glee when we first boarded, as I walked through the elegant lounges, bars, and dining rooms, and then out on the soupy-air Miami decks looking at the incredible blue of the water. When I proclaimed that I felt like I was on the Titanic on Facebook and my long-time friend Sara commented that only a true Titanic lover would happily make that comparison. I wasn’t really worried about sinking, no. I was just expecting tacky. The aesthetic of the ship of dark woods, antique lamps and artwork, combined with posters with inspirational travel messages, was really appealing.
The Adonia holds 700 people, as opposed to the 4,000 or so that go on a normal Carnival cruise (the kind Wallace was writing about). The sales director later said they consider the Adonia a mix of English country and rock and roll, and that’s fair, since they also had a cover band on the ship with dancing nightly (which brought together all the generations to dance). At our first dinner we shared a table with Monica, who works for Carnival, who said a normal cruise is as big as a football field and you would have to plan your entire day when you leave the room. To me, that sounded awful. But the Adonia was manageable.
This social impact cruise with Fathom Travel has been an education in many things–one thing we learned about was the typical size of cruises. That's a typical Carnival cruise ship on the left that accommodates four thousand and is like a football field to navigate and that's the Adonia, a much smaller boat with a capacity of 700 that we are on. I so prefer our littler cruise boat and remain confirmed in my belief that I would not like a typical cruise since I am a #writer, #introvert and not a crowd person! However this Adonia with #fathomtravel definitely floats my boat. #dominicanrepublic #sponsored
The food — and the service — was fantastic, I must say. I was nervous since I have celiac disease and double-checked to be sure they would have gluten-free options. Not only did they have gluten-free options, they had two special diet cooks who would make me almost any dessert I wanted. Every night a waiter would take my order for the next day so they could prepare special meals for me. In fact, if anything, the food was too good. Even as a celiac I ate way too much. David Foster Wallace was right about the overconsumption if not the tackiness.
The people? There were a lot of families and traditional folk, but there was also a bit of everything. We met an Ottawa woman who worked for the Canadian Army in a long-distance relationship with an economics professor from Mississippi, who met up for the cruise. We met single travelers who came just because “they needed to do something” and the trip was a deal at its launch. We met adult sisters traveling together, an aunt who took her nephew on as a graduation present. I connected with some fabulous travel agents who want to do purpose-oriented boutique trips for their new travel agency Intention Travel. They may collaborate with me on the Tango Adventure in Buenos Aires. Here’s us having drinks.
I met Natalia and Isabelle on the social impact travel cruise to the Dominican Republic. These two amazing women worked as corporate travel agents for thirty years and are now busting out to do their own travel agency Intention, travel with a purpose. I learned a lot about travel agents on the cruise. They still exist and the role is evolving. They might be needed even more in the Internet age to help people find what they really want in a trip. We may collaborate on the #tangoadventure in #buenosaires since my offer of transformative travel is right ip@their alley. I learned I am offering #wellnesstravel and there are wellness travel agents. Who knew? You learn so much when you meet other fabulous human beings.
Assessing the “social impact” in the cruise
So what about the social-impact part of the cruise? What did that actually mean? The Fathom staff was made up of mostly young people, some Peace Corps volunteers and Teach for America alums on the staff, and they had partnered with local nonprofit organizations on the Dominican Republic to organized half-day or day-long activities where the ship’s passengers could sign up to “make an impact.”
The impact activities ranged from helping to pour a cement floor for families who had only lived on mud floors, and planting trees to helping create water filters using liquid silver in pottery to kill bacteria and provide safe drinking water, to teaching English to kids and adults in communities and schools who wanted to learn.
My mother and I took part in two “impact activities.” One one day we worked with the local chapter of a global organization called Wine to Water that’s helping to create technology for safe drinking water around the world. Fathom charged $30 for the water filter activity, which went to support the project. The technology was fascinating: we helped make clay water filters that blends clay, sawdust, and liquid silver to kill bacteria.
Another day we trucked out to a village to meet with a community of kids and adults who want to learn English. We met in their homes to practice vocabulary. Here are two of the kids we practiced English with. When you imagine they are getting to practice weekly with native speakers you realize this adds up over time and can make a real impact on a community.
Anyela and Randy, two neighbors who are part of the Entrena English-learning community project … We visited with them today and spent an hour teaching them English … They were wonderful. Pretty fantastic collaboration with #fathomtravel where people from a cruise come to their community every two weeks to practice conversational English and pronunciation with them. I know from living in #buenosaires how many people really want to learn English and how many opportunities that can open. Makes me think how easy it would be to offer an hour of conversation practice a week as a volunteer service. #dominicanrepublic #sponsored
So were the social impact activities genuine? Do they make a difference? I wondered if the social impact would be real, but my mother and I were both impressed in the end. At our final dinner, she said, “You go to church or read the newspaper and people are all talking about these problems with the environment, safe drinking water, poverty, and then here’s this company that’s not just talking about it, they’re doing something and it’s actually effective.” It is impressive. Some of the cement floors are going to families who have infants.
We participated in the sixth cruise to the Dominican Republic and the cumulative impact so far of the cruises have been:
• 728 English learners learning English from the participants who come to practice with them
• 8,000 seedlings for plants in a reforestation project
• 1,679 cocoa nibs sorted for 49,000 chocolate bars
• 3,850 sheets of paper create for a recycled paper project and job opportunities for the women who work on this project
• 16 homes poured with cement floors
• 316 water filters made with liquid silver, sawdust and clay helping 1500 people get safe drinking water without having to buy bottled water, reducing disease and lost time from school and work
Some fun stuff: Waterfalls! Is there anything funner?
We also did fun stuff in the Dominican Republic. My personal favorite was climbing up waterfalls and then shooting down or jumping off them. I must say my mother was quite the trooper for doing this seven-waterfall hike. We’re lucky no one hurt any joints or limbs. Many thanks to our incredible guide Leoni Vargas who took these photos and was able to navigate these wild falls with his phone in a little plastic bag to keep it safe, then he sent me the photos.
Back to a “supposedly fun thing I would never do again.” Would I go on a Fathom cruise again? Yes. It actually was really fun. I love being wrong sometimes. Life is much much more interesting when you are wrong and discover something new.
Here you can see my mother and I discuss the “Fathom Experience” over cocktails by the beach in the Dominican Republic, by the “Malecon” (boardwalk) of Puerto Plata, near where the ship was docked for three days.