Why I’m Okay with Fathom’s Volunteer Tourism

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(Don’t forget to check out my previous post: 15 Observations After 24 Hours on Fathom!)

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I boarded Fathom’s Adonia for a 7 day cruise to the Dominican Republic, focused on “impact activities” or what the rest of us would traditionally call “volunteering.” Sure, there are optional excursions you can take such as a day at an all-inclusive beach or riding ATVs or renting catamaran – but the free excursions are the impact activities and really, are the purpose for the trips.   Passengers can choose between several options, including making water filters, helping plant seedlings in a nursery and reforestation project, tutoring community or student English, laying cement floors, visiting a coacao women’s cooperative, or helping out at a community paper recycling entrepreneurship.


As I sit in my cabin , muddy, tired, and mildly proud of myself that I managed not to get sunburned, I reflect on my experience of our first impact activity, the reforestation project. Today we planted 1005 mahogany seeds and we transplanted 105 seedlings.   If volunteers do these projects week after week, this adds up to an incredible environmental impact.  The local community is also starting to notice that buses of (mainly) Americans come up the mountain every week, and have started to ask, “If they are willing to come all this way, perhaps we also should learn about things we can do to help.” And that’s also a powerful impact.


At first I felt uncomfortable with some passengers’ attitudes onboard the ship. There are some that question everything (“Are we sure we are really helping people?”) and are clearly uncomfortable with knowing that they are more economically privileged than the average Dominican.   Then there are those that claim to be well-traveled, but they have only seen the world from the back of a tour bus or from a ship, and view most foreigners as “someone who is poorer than us”.


Then there are the middle ground of super interesting people who just view volunteering and social impact as part of their daily life – not something to trumpet around or make a distinction that “well, this cruise is about volunteering.” They are simply on another travel adventure and looking forward to the social interaction component that Fathom promises.  And this is the “#traveldeep” that Fathom calls us to.


And that’s when it struck me – why I’m not bothered by Fathom’s brand of volunteer tourism, despite feeling before I boarded that perhaps it would.   For me, as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer as well as a former AmeriCorps volunteer, many of the conditions the Dominicans find themselves in are all too familiar to me. Traveling for me is to experience an country at its most authentic.   I know from my own experiences that you never quite know how much you don’t know – every month, every year, you think back and realize, “Wow, I definitely had no idea what I was doing then.” And then you think the same thing six months later!   So I can understand some people’s discomfort with the idea of only volunteering a few days in a community without a lot of integration opportunities – but,   I recall a few years ago running massive (500+ people) volunteer projects in Philadelphia as an AmeriCorps member. It was truly inspiring when an entire neighborhood would turn out to beautify a children’s playground or restore a school. I can’t imagine how the project would have been less successful if everyone had just thought, “Well, I’m only there for one day. Who am I to impose the idea that children deserve a good playground?”  


Don’t think of the ship’s purpose as “volunteer activities.” Think of it as a chance to interact with the local population. Because this is how the local population lives.  Think of it as meeting your new Dominican friends… who happen to work at a reforestation nursery or in a school that needs English tutors, and your new friend has asked you along to help for the day.


We have to recognize the fact that some of the most gorgeous tropical locations in the world have incredible disparity in wealth.   Many of these are found in the Caribbean. That’s one of the reasons for the numerous all-inclusive resorts on these islands.   Tourism has created secluded spots that allow tourists to enjoy these stunning locations without being subjected to crime, peddlers, beggars, and shocking (to our untrained eye) vistas of houses made from tin scraps. There’s Peace Corps in Fiji, for crying out loud – one of the premier luxurious honeymoon spots in the world.  (I know this because I turned down a Peace Corps post in Fiji– instead I chose Togo, West Africa, where I lived in conditions much harsher than many of the communities we visited in Dominican Republic.)


Fathom allows us to confront these realities. To know a developing country is to eat its food, dance its music, view its shorelines, befriend its people, experience their lives, and embrace its ugliness as well as its beauty.   To know that a country is more than just abject poverty or gorgeous resorts – you don’t have to choose between these two definitions.   A country doesn’t have to be “just” a poor place you go to volunteer or a “just” a wealthy country with fine dining opportunities.   It’s more complex than that.


Fathom offers us a chance to talk to regular people here in the Dominican Republic. It offers a salve to passengers who view cruises as too much of a whistle-stop in various cities without true engagement with the population. Talking to representatives of the non-governmental organizations that Fathom has partnered with (they are local organizations, not American ones) as they worked alongside us and getting to know the wonderful things they are working towards in their country was a wonderful opportunity that felt authentic. You are partnering with leaders of organizations that are your equals and working together towards a common goal.   You break bread together and you find your commonalities – your love of sports, your children, your travel experiences, your stumbling Spanish phrases.  You forget that you thought you “would be helping people on this cruise,” and instead, realize that you’re interacting with the local population and learning about daily life in a way that most cruiselines simply can’t teach you.


This is why I’m okay with Fathom’s model of volunteer tourism.   Because it’s up to each of us to decide our purpose for being on this journey. It’s up to us to choose whether to view this beautiful island’s inhabitants as people who need help – or just as people, who happen to be working on some amazing civic engagement projects, and would welcome us to join them.


*This was the end of Day 1 docked at Amber Cove, Dominican Republic. We participated in the Reforestation and Nursery project.     We have two more projects signed up – the Recycled Paper Entrepeneurship and the Student English Tutoring. Follow the blog to continue to read more about Fathom!  I’ll edit this post  and note whether or not any of my original feelings after completing my week onboard. 


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