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What I Learned in Cuba and the Dominican Republic via Fathom...Part 3: Listen to the Locals, They Kn

Most of the Fathom travelers that I met on the Cuba and Dominican Republic trips were filled with curiosity and wanted to help the people in the country they were visiting. Their noble hearts were in the right place. There was a tough paradigm shift though that many had to overcome in order to make sure the social impact was truly helpful to the community to which they were spending only a week as a guest.

Many people wanted to bring a suitcase filled with items they could give away to people and when the Fathom Impact Team told everyone that it was frowned upon to do so, people were stunned, including myself. We threw on the superhero cape, before the cry for help or bat signal hit the sky. We had no idea of the unintended consequences of our good intentions that were outlined for us by the Fathom team on the ship and our local impact guides:

  • The goal of the experience is to engage locals to learn more about each other and work together to better the community on their terms and needs…not what we think is best for them.

  • Many of the people there we would classify as poor and unhappy, but that doesn’t mean that’s how they see themselves. Imagine if you were walking down the street where you live and a stranger came up to you and gave you a bag of used clothes, what would be your response?

  • While giving is an important aspect of charity, it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t affect their everyday economy and life. If a reliance on the charity sets in, it could cause major problems if/when it ends. Fathom’s goal is to spend a good amount of time in one location then move to another to have a wider impact.

Wow, it was a major paradigm shift for me, but the more I thought about it, I became fully baptized into this new way to look at social impact. When I stayed on for the Dominican Republic cruise, it was interesting to see people hit with this for the first time. I became such a believer that an incident on the DR cruise really bothered me.

On the DR trip we were assigned cohorts that we met with every other day to learn more about the country and discuss our experiences. Someone shared a story on the last day that really bothered the group. Apparently at our day at the kid’s camp, she saw a woman from our cruise put money in the pocket of her assigned buddy and gave her the expensive sunglasses she was wearing. The woman who saw this didn’t say anything because she didn’t want to cause a scene, but it's the perfect example of unintended consequences.

I’m sure the woman felt like she did a wonderful thing and it made her feel good, but she had no idea the danger that she put that little girl in. If she told any of her classmates what happened, “That lady just gave me $20 and her cool sunglasses!!!”, that girl could become a target. In our discussion we learned that the school caters to students all the way up to the 12th grade. Its not uncommon for kids to be bullied or robbed going to and from school in that environment. What expectation did that woman now set for every other group that goes in next? Are the kids going to see us differently now? Why didn't see listen to the locals?

Some travelers I met were quite savvy in how they approached social impact and served as great examples. A group of ladies brought nail polish with them and looked for a salon in Cuba to create dialogue with the workers there and left them bottles of new colors. A gentleman brought some new guitar strings with him and when he would see a musician with weak or damaged stings, he would start a conversation and offer the new strings. Fathom itself is working on establishing relationships with local charities so that passengers can donate and items will be delivered to those in need by their local resources.

There were a lot of feel-good moments on this trip. If you feel good, but leave a lot of unintended consequences behind, is that the kind of impact you want to create? The Fathom Impact Team (many served in the Peace Corps) and the local impact guides know what they are doing. If you ever take a Fathom cruise remember, even though you are on vacation, you are a guest in that country. Remember those that will follow you on the next cruise. Remember to listen to the locals…they know best.

Philanthropy is a wonderful thing. Seek first to understand before you throw on the superhero cape!


While I did receive a travel agent discount to familiarize myself with Fathom and their cruise to Cuba, I was never asked or received compensation to write about my experience. The decision was mine to share. Fathom offered all Cuba cruise passengers the opportunity to stay on board for the cruise to the Dominican Republic at a discounted rate and chose to do so to experience both products.

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