I was sitting in a cold guesthouse in Argentina when the opportunity came floating into my inbox to volunteer and travel at the same time – two things I’d actually never done. It was with Carnival Cruises’ new project, Fathom Impact, and it would be a volunteer cruise to the Dominican Republic.
Okay, I’m skeptical, but I’m listening, I thought.
I’d volunteered before, but that was with Big Brothers Big Sisters when I still lived in California. It had nothing to do with voluntourism, and I’d been on a cruise ship just once, for 3 days, when I was 14.
Now normally, I’d say a quick no to a typical cruise. I don’t like how they go from port to port and you just get a very cookie-cutter experience. However this didn’t look like the typical cruise at all.
I’ve also been skeptical and unsure about volunteering during my travels, but I also want to be open to trying new things, and to giving back sometimes, so I decided to give it a try.
Besides, the warm Dominican Republic sure did sound nice.
I boarded Fathom’s second voyage to the Dominican Republic in May. Unlike most cruise ships, this one is much smaller and therefore the crowds are too.
This was part of my reason for being open to Fathom. I liked the idea of being surrounded by people who were interested in a little something different as compared to a normal cruise.
I also really liked the idea of sleeping on a ship – something I’ve done several times in the past on dive boats and always loved. Being able to travel without packing up and moving each day, and sleeping through the transit were appealing as well.
Additionally, I really dig that you can eat on a cruise ship pretty much any time you want to, because I’m a hungry person, and that they had a gym, a pool deck, and a gorgeous library as well.
As I mentioned before, I liked this cruise because it gave us the potential to go into the community and to get to know and meet the local people, something that I think other cruises lack.
I scanned the volunteer options carefully. I’ve read the problem with little white girls and I wanted to be helpful, not harmful or completely impact-less.
They have lots of options, from working at a women’s cooperative where they make and sell recycled paper art, to planting trees and prepping seedlings, to teaching English to locals.
I chose to teach English, something I enjoyed in the past when I lived in Taiwan.
I boarded a bus to drive from the port a full hour away to the rural area where we’d be teaching, locals waving to us all along the way. I was happy to see that those who worked on the ground, organizing the activities were locals. I also learned that they continue the lessons after we leave.
I arrived at the volunteer destination to a group of smiling and incredibly enthusiastic people of all ages. I felt like they were truly happy to have us there, which encouraged me immediately.
I taught to a young boy, and out of respect for he and his home, focused on the lessons instead of taking photos, so my apologies for the lack of imagery from the session.
I left feeling like it was really good program and one that the locals are grateful to have, though I wish it had been longer, because I could have happily stayed there all day helping him practice his numbers and how to say “good morning,” and, “good afternoon.”
I think Fathom is running some great programs there that I can feel good about. If you’d like a more in-depth look at the way that they do things, my friend Stephanie wrote a comprehensive interview with the leader of our English program that allayed a lot of my fears and cleared up our questions.
Around the Dominican Republic
I loved exploring the Dominican Republic. I found the people to be sweet and friendly and loved the landscape as well. There are waterfalls, beaches galore, and as I was told by some others on the ship, good nightlife as well.
The volunteer activities are a free offering on the ship, but in order to explore more of the DR, you can do some of their paid organized activities or in my case, rent a car and explore on your own. I was with four other bloggers and Instagrammers so between the five of us, a rental car was only $25 each for three days.
Just be forewarned – driving in the Domincan Republic is like playing frogger and chicken at the same time. If you scare easily on the road you might not want to do a rental there. Public busses run through the island as well!
Salto de Limon
My biggest highlight was the Salto de Limon waterfall. Maybe we’re a bit crazy but in order to reach it from the boat dock at Amber Cove by 8am so that we could photograph it without shadows or other people, we got in the car at 3:30am and drove the empty streets all the way there.
Once there you can hire a local guide to take you down – it would be a bit easy to take the wrong path otherwise. They can also rent you some rubber boots to deal with the mud, which I highly recommend. We paid $6 per person for the guide, plus a $3 park entrance fee at the bottom. These rates seem to always be negotiable and they’ll start high at first.
If you’re interested in gorgeous beaches, take a right out of Amber Cove and drive along until something catches your eye. To the left, they tended to have more trash.
Overall, my experience with Fathom was really good. I felt relaxed on the boat and I enjoyed my time in the DR. (You can read more about their programs in the DR and Cuba here.)
Would I try volunteering on the road again? I would love to. I think that teaching English is an excellent way to give back because as a native speaker, I’m not taking a job away from a local and if the student is as enthusiastic as they were in the Dominican Republic, it’s a real treat for both of us.
Have you volunteered abroad before? Can you recommend some programs?
*This post was brought to you in collaboration with Fathom Impact. They did not ask me to write a favorable review, and you can trust that the opinions on this blog are always honest. Your trust comes first.