Today we arrived in the Dominican Republic and began our work as volunteers.
Less than 48 hours after sailing from Miami, we arrived in Amber Cove, a recently redeveloped port not used by cruise ships in three decades. The port is simple, intentionally quaint and sufficiently modern.
Before arriving, we had another opportunity for training this morning. We reviewed Dominican history, culture and key traveler tips. The session was fun, with much of the session set up as games. The interactive format ensured that we all earned something. Don’t get me wrong, we won’t get college credit for this training, but we came away with a basic understanding of the country.
Upon docking, we were invited to a welcoming party celebrating the opening of the new port and the arrival of the first ship. Tara Russell, Fathom’s president, and Arnold Donald, Carnival’s President and CEO, welcomed the first passengers and thanked the local community for its support. A number of local dignitaries were present and the mayor of Puerto Plata, the nearby city.
Following the ceremony, we were off to impact activities. There were several to choose from:
Each person was invited to sign up for three activities during the four days here in port. I cheated and signed up for four, one each day. The various projects and activities are all supported by two major, local nonprofits. Entrena was founded by a young American and his Dominican wife, John and Sobeya Seibel, after his stint in the Peace Corps in 1982. Instituto Dominicano de Desarrollo Integral, Inc. (almost always referred to as IDDI, pronounced like Edie) is a large nonprofit with six social and environmental missions.
Note that the cruise also offers traditional cruise excursions like zip lines and tours, but they are not included in the price of the cruise, whereas the impact activities are.
For today, I had signed up for the Reforestation and Nursery project. While not as deforested as Haiti, which is almost entirely deforested, the Dominican Republic is largely deforested and the country is working to reverse that. There are a variety of differences between Haiti and the Dominican Republic that make reforestation possible here and more difficult on the other side of the island, principally the use of wood and charcoal as cooking fuel in Haiti, which is less common on this side.
As we were the first regular participants (training and investigative groups have been doing preliminary work for some months) there were no trees ready for us to plant so our task was to plant seeds and seedlings in small bags that would serve as temporary pots for the nursery. In two to five months the trees will be ready to plant in their permanent homes. By cultivating the seedlings in the nursery, the plants are given a 50/50 chance of surviving, they facilitators explained.
As a group of about 60 people, we were allocated four hours for the project. We left the port at 2:00 and returned at 6:04, almost perfectly on schedule.
We did virtually all of our project work in about one hour. In that time, we planted seeds or seedlings for 1,373 trees:
Following the one hour of work, we took a break, had some light snacks and water. We followed that with a guided hike through the rainforest to help us gain some perspective on the reforestation work that we were initiating.
The pace of the work and the hike were similar, set to the capability of the weakest and slowest among us. For most, that made the afternoon rather light work and generally enjoyable.
For some of us who are passionate about driving impact, we found ourselves wondering—sometimes out loud—about the impact we’d had.
Ultimately, it is clear that if we’d each given $50 to IDDI, the organization could have hired a team to do more planting than we’d done. That said, the IDDI staff staunchly defended the model, emphasizing the value to them of having us come.
If we simply consider the alternative of cruising to Amber Cove to lay on the beach and compare that to the project we completed, it becomes clear that this does have a social benefit that has the potential to be meaningful. We put two groups of people together from significantly different cultures and worked closely together—not especially hard nor for very long—but we got to know each other in a personal way that would have been unlikely—if not impossible—on the beach. And of course, laying on the beach, no reforestation would have happened at all.
Perhaps the cruise isn’t so much about the help we give or the difference we make in the lives of the Dominicans but about the connections we make and the differences we make in our own lives.