FATHOM: OUR FINAL CHAPTER

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“Gratitude” doesn’t fully describe how I feel about the experiences Bruce and I shared during our three Fathom Impact Travel cruises.  There were so many memorable experiences that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.  Any impact we made in the Dominican Republic and Cuba came back around in such wonderful ways—all described in the many blog posts I have written about our January, March, and April visits.  Search “Fathom” on this blog site, and you can read about them all.

On our last cruise, as planned, we reunited with some passengers we had previously met aboard Adonia; but, we also unexpectedly saw others from our January and March cruises.

Each one of us had re-booked a Fathom Impact Travel cruise for similar reasons, and all of us were eager to continue making an impact.

When Fathom’s Adonia sets sail on May 21 to the Dominican Republic, it will be her last sailing under the Fathom flag.  Her lease expires, and then she will sail to Europe to become a P&O ship once again.  All of her crew with the exception of the Impact Travel Staff will sail with her.

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The Dominican Republic flag (left) is the only national flag with a bible on it.

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Amber Cove, Dominican Republic

Adonia will be missed.  As a former 6-star Renaissance ship (before the company folded), she’s a classic beauty built in a style no longer seen in new ships.  Beautiful mahogany, crown molding, etched glass, impeccable craftsmanship—these are all abundantly featured throughout the 704-passenger ship.

Fathom may be all about “Impact Travel” rather than the vehicle getting us to our destinations; but, what Adonia did for Fathom was to provide a more intimate atmosphere for its passengers, enabling them to meet and share experiences more easily.

A favorite place to bond with our fellow cruisers was on the aft deck outside of “The Conservatory”, the buffet and casual dining area of the ship.  It became a popular meeting place for travelers to hang out with a cold drink, and swap stories of their Impact Travel activities.  Friendships were made and cemented, especially during sea days when there was no concern about the time.

When Bruce and I taught arts and crafts classes aboard larger Royal Caribbean ships, we often commented about the many people we saw disembarking that we never saw during the cruise.

Not so aboard Adonia.  Between the cohort meetings, workshops, dining room unassigned seating, and Impact Travel activities; we at least recognized everybody during disembarkation.  We also left with many more e-mail addresses and friendships than we ever had before.

On May 28, Fathom as we know it will end.  The following is an official statement I received upon request from Tara Russell, President of Fathom, regarding Fathom’s future:

There is a macro trend around the hunger for greater meaning and purpose in our everyday lives – people want to live their best story and long to go deeper. This exists independent of Fathom and manifests daily as a growing audience of consumers work to combine their purchases and experiences with their values. Fathom addresses this growing desire through travel experiences. Fathom invites travelers to get closer by traveling in new and exciting ways. Fathom heightens human connections between travelers, with new local friends and other cultures, and in any relationship a traveler may touch.

During our first season, Fathom trialed this purpose-driven concept by testing traveler appetites for travel-deep experiences with 7-day journeys on the MV Adonia to the Dominican Republic and Cuba. Nearly 10 percent of Fathom travelers who joined these sailings returned quickly to participate again and our customer satisfaction scores were among the highest in the corporation. In short, the Fathom concept was very well received.

We always intended to serve our much broader corporate audience of 12 million travelers. The popularity of the Fathom experience with travelers who sailed with us inspired us to move quickly to expand the Fathom concept – onboard, onshore and in new and creative ways to serve an even greater audience.

Going forward, Fathom Travel experiences will live aboard countless other ships operated by our nine sister brands and offer beyond immersive experiences in many geographies. Fathom is designed to intersect and inspire the lives of travelers anywhere through heightened human connections that unlock human potential and connect travelers to a bigger story.

Already, we are providing Fathom Travel experiences on-ground to travelers across six Carnival Corporation brands in the Dominican Republic. We are honored to leverage our collective scale as we come alongside our Dominican friends to create enduring contributions to the lives of families and communities. Soon Fathom experiences will also be offered on board our sister brands.

Fathom looks forward to serving the 12 million people who annually travel with Carnival Corporation, as well as the millions of new travelers who long to go deeper into our growing community. We’re nearing the end of chapter one, but there is much ahead for the rest of the Fathom story and the best is yet to come! 

As of today, I have not received any definitive answer if Fathom will ever again have a dedicated ship for its Impact Travel mission.  If it does, I doubt it will be intimate and casino-less like Adonia. 

Thanks for the memories!

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Marcia (IDDI), Steven (IDDI), Me, Wilmers (IDDI), Colin (Fathom Impact Travel Staff Manager), Bruce, Raymond (IDDI)

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Frank (Entrena)

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Marvin (wait staff) remembered us from our previous cruise and visited us often on the aft deck for chats.

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Tomasito, leader of the Cuban band aboard ship

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Mauritza, Jessica, Brandon, and Len.  We cruised with Jessica and her dad on the January 1st and April 9th sailings.

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Mauritza and Jessica

 

 

OUR THIRD VISIT TO THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC; OUR SIXTH AND SEVENTH TO CHOCAL

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Type “Chocal” into the search box above, and a list of several blog posts will appear that I have written about Chocal, the women’s cooperative chocolate factory and cacao plantation in the Dominican Republic (the DR).  In all, Bruce and I participated in Fathom’s Impact Travel program at Chocal seven times; three visits during our January 1st Fathom Adonia cruise, twice on our March 12 cruise, and twice on our final visit to the DR, during the week of April 9, 2017.

Those earlier blog posts included information about how Chocal was established (although I didn’t mention how the factory replaced what was once a nightclub hangout for drug dealers and other criminals).  I wrote about the benefits Chocal has provided the thirty women and 130 families of the Altamira community.  The chocolate-making process was also described, from bean to bar, including photos I shot of the cacao processing machinery.  Our volunteer contributions were also detailed including the impact our work groups made on Chocal’s production.

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Although cacao beans are very bitter to bite into, the white pulp surrounding the beans is sweet and delicious!  I was given the remainder of the seeds in this pod to suck on and enjoy– about half of the 50 seeds it contained.  

Since then, the cumulative impact has grown as more and more Fathom passengers volunteered at Chocal.  As of April 15 of this year (the one year anniversary of Fathom Adonia’s first sailing), 4,419 passengers have visited Chocal and sorted 5,186 pounds of cacao nibs, resulting in 152,994 finished chocolate products.  In addition, since the neighboring cacao plantation nursery was added to the Impact Travel program, 29,920 cacao seeds were planted.  Of those, roughly 75% will grow to become cacao trees. In three years, those trees will be each produce about 20 pods ready to harvest each May and November for the next 30-40 years.  Each of those pods will contain about 50 seeds—enough to produce a 2-ounce bar of chocolate to be sold in the Dominican Republic.  (In addition, Chocal exports cacao nibs to Canada and the U.S.A., earning $2 per pound.)

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The inside of a cacao seed is very bitter!

Bruce and I made a personal impact at Chocal as well, bringing a box of ear plugs to the factory workers (when we visited in March) with promises to send more if the workers cared enough about preserving their hearing to use the ear plugs regularly.

I also brought memories with me during that second visit, giving each of the workers photo notecards I had made of the photos I had taken of them last January.  Their reactions and expressed gratitude was gratifying and left a lasting warmth in our hearts.

Our final Fathom Adonia voyage was during the week before Easter (a very important holiday in the DR), and we were there the day before and day of Good Friday.  As a result, many of the women of Chocal were home cooking and preparing for the holiday, so we didn’t get to see some of them again as we had hoped.  Still, our two visits were special, memorable, and heart-warming.

We arrived once again with an armful of photo notecards—this time, made with photos of our Chocal friends holding the cards I had given them in March; and, we brought another box of ear plugs to keep them well-stocked for a while.

Our bus driver, Diosiris Dipre (“Dipre”) was the same one we had last March, and he appeared very happy to see us again!  His sincere gratitude for such a simple gesture of giving a photograph reminded me of how random acts of kindness can make such a positive impact.

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Our bus driver, Dipre & IDDI facilitator, Juan

Gumarcindo, the nursery’s manager, also welcomed us warmly once again and laughed heartily when I gave him another photo card.  I wish I would have remembered to take another picture of him holding his card, because the photo on the card showed him holding the card I gave him in March that had the picture I took of him in January on it! We got so busy working at the nursery, I completely forgot.  It’s another one of those photos that got away…

Our IDDI facilitator on the bus with us this time was Juan, an IDDI rep we had seen during previous visits, but hadn’t gotten to know, since he was on the other bus in the past.  The guy is a hoot, and we had a lot of laughs with him during both of our days going to Chocal.  His grandmother works at the factory, and even though she didn’t speak any English, we managed to form a bond through smiles and gestures.

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Juan

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Juan’s grandmother

Steven, another IDDI facilitator was there once again, and he seemed happy to see us and start another round of teasing, picking up from where we left off in March.

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Steven & Bruce

As we saw the women, one-by-one, throughout our time at the factory, each one recognized us and greeted us with hugs.  It was nice to be remembered once again!

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At one point, though, I had a brief moment of sadness when we passed through the office to work in the packaging area, and Bruce noticed the box of ear plugs we had given them in March.  The box was sitting on top of a high pony wall in the exact same place where it had been left after I demonstrated to the president how to use the ear plugs.  When Bruce saw what appeared to be the unused box and told me about it, he had a disappointed look on his face.  He said, “I don’t think they’ve touched those ear plugs since you gave them the box.”  My heart sank, and I wondered whether I should even give them the second box I had brought.  Not giving it a second thought, I doubled back to check the box for myself.  Just as I opened it and noticed it only two-thirds full, Milagros (the factory manager) walked in and exclaimed, “Si!  Si!!” as she pointed to her ears and smiled.  The workers were in fact using the ear plugs, and they were very grateful to receive more!  That made my day.

After our work session officially ended and the others shopped in the gift shop, Bruce and I stayed behind to give one last push of sorting beans.  As a final parting “gift”, Steven took me back into the factory where we had molded chocolates, gave me a plastic glove, and told me to hold out my hand.  In it landed a palm-ful of warm chocolate from the bowl we had worked from to create our little chocolate works of “art”.  I will never forget how gooood that chocolate tasted as I licked every bit up!  I savored it slowly knowing it could very well be the last visit we ever make to Chocal.

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Coming up next:  OUR REUNION WITH THE WOMEN OF REPAPEL

 

 

OUR RETURN TO CHOCAL

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The early evening light cast a beautiful golden glow on the shores of Puerto Plata, and our arrival to Amber Cove was magical.  After enjoying the sail into port from the aft deck, we took in the views of the cove from our balcony, as we got ready to head to the dining room for another delicious dinner.  That night, I was getting so excited to see our amigos and amigas at Chocal the following morning that it was difficult to get good sleep.

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Sunrise behind Amber Cove

After breakfast, we grabbed the box of ear plugs and stack of photo notecards I made for everybody and eagerly hiked out to the buses.  Leurys from IDDI (Dominican Institute for Integral Development) spotted us immediately and greeted both of us with a big hug and “thank you”.  Back in January, she had admired the fused glass earrings I had been wearing, and since Bruce had made them, it was easy enough to give her an identical pair.  Bruce offered to send her some as a gift; however, we were unsure of the mail service; so, I sent them along with a friend of mine who sailed on Fathom’s Adonia, in February.

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When we arrived to Altamira (“high view”), our bus load of volunteers started out working at the cacao plantation.  “Hola, Gumarcindo!  Que lo que?!  (What’s up?)”  As soon as he heard my voice, Gumarcindo turned around and greeted me and Bruce with a huge smile, hug, and a fist bump for Bruce.  (It’s a guy thing, I guess…)  The surprised look on his face was priceless when we gave him the photo card I had made from the picture I had shot last January.  He was so appreciative!

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It was time to get to work, though, and our group hustled filling 266 bags of dirt, and then passed them down the assembly line to receive cacao seeds.  In two months, they will look like the ones we planted in January.  It was great to see how our “babies” were doing!

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Bruce leads off the “bucket brigade”

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Our “babies” from january!

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Cacao pod and seeds.  The membrane surrounding the seeds is delicious!  Suck the membrane off the seed, but don’t bite, because the seed itself is very bitter!

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Cacao seeds drying in the sun

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Not only did Gumarcindo remember us, but Wilmers, Steven, and the bus driver, Milagras did, too.  Instead of going off with the group to tour the fermenting area (which we had seen during our last visit), I stayed back to talk with the guys.

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Diosiris, Wilmers, Steven, and Gumarcindo

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Gumarcindo and Raymond

When our time was up at the nursery, we headed over to the factory to sort beans and nibs, mold chocolate, and wrap chocolate bars.  Again, our enthusiastic greetings of “Hola!  Que lo que?” were met with big, wide-eyed smiles, and hugs.  It was nice to be remembered!  We also were so happy to see how much everybody appreciated the photo cards.  One of the ladies even went to get paper towels and carefully wrapped hers up, and then held onto it tight.  (She at least let us get another photo with her and the card first!)

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Bruce and I join Mamita

They had so much fun looking at each other’s cards and laughing at the pictures!  We may not have been able to communicate too much using words with each other; but, a smile is a smile in any language, and those ladies were all smiles!

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Augustina

After passing out the cards, my next order of business before getting down to work was to give the co-op’s president, Susan, the yellow 3M ear plugs.  As one of the other IDDI facilitators translated, I explained the importance of using ear plugs to save their hearing. I then demonstrated how to properly insert them and use the “pillow pouch” for storage afterward.  By keeping the ear plugs clean and storing them in the pouch, they would last a lot longer.

I promised Susan and Naomi (the V.P.), that if the factory workers used the ear plugs regularly, I would send more.  There is no mail service to Altamira, so I would send them to the IDDI office, and the facilitators would deliver them to Chocal.

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Bruce, Christopher, Naomi (VP), Susan “Luz” (President), and Rafael

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After distributing the cards and ear plugs, Bruce and I finally did manage to get some work done.  The best part, though, was getting to taste the spicy hot chocolate and warm molding chocolate again.  Ahhh, it was so good to be back!

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Milagros (factory manager) & Bruce

This time, when we said, “Adios!” to everybody at the end of our last day, we wondered if it would be forever.  Would we ever be back?  Never say never…

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My amigo, Steven

Next up:  HABLA INGLES?  TEACHING ENGLISH IN THE DR

FATHOM ADONIA: CRUISE #2

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As we sailed away from the Dominican Republic last January, my heart ached to return to Chocal.  The friendly women at the co-op, Gumarcindo at the cacao nursery, and the IDDI facilitators had grown on Bruce as well.  We both wanted to return, and it seemed to be the only thing we wanted to talk about during our drive home from Miami.

By the time we returned home, we had made the firm decision to book another Fathom cruise to the D.R. and Chocal before the ship leaves for Europe in June.  Immediately after we arrived home, I headed into our house and picked up the phone to call Fathom’s office.  Since we only wanted to book a cruise if we could return to Chocal, our cruise date would be dependent on that availability.  Our first choice was sold out, and our only other availability was for a cruise that included a stop in Cuba as well.  One day in Cuba isn’t enough, and only two visits to Chocal in the D.R.  wasn’t enough either, but something was better than nothing.   With suitcases still packed in the back of our car, we were already booked for our next cruise!

It would be two-and-a-half months before our departure, but we were filled with excitement for what was to come.  During our free time, I researched Cuba and the port we would be visiting:  Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city of our mysterious neighbor, just 90 miles south of Key West, Florida.

Although Fathom has a strict policy about not bringing items for donation, there were two ideas I had for gifts I wanted to bring to Chocal:  photo notecards of each of the people I had photographed back in January, and ear plugs.

Why ear plugs?  When Bruce and I toured the factory, the noise level from the machinery was horrendous, and we noticed none of the workers used ear plugs.  By the time they reach my age, they will be deaf!  I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I went on Amazon and purchased a box of 3M industrial-grade foam ear plugs in cardboard pouches—the same type I was given at the hospital when I had an MRI.  After a day’s work in the factory, I thought the workers could place the ear plugs back in their pouches, and put them in their pockets.  The ear plugs could be used again for several days before they would need to be replaced.  I figured I could then obtain an address where I would send more to them in the future.

On March 12, with photo notecards in hand and ear plugs in our suitcase, we boarded Fathom’s ship, Adonia, and set sail from Miami.

We knew our cohort leader, Collin, and his wife, Katie, would still be on leave, but we were happy to see many of the friendly staff we had met on our first cruise.  It felt like “home” to be back aboard this beautiful ship!

As an extra bonus, we were surprised with a free upgrade to a beautiful balcony cabin!  It was a first for us, so we couldn’t have been more thrilled.

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We looked forward to enjoying a full day at sea before our arrival to Cuba, a “bucket list” destination we had spoken many times of visiting after President Obama had loosened up travel restrictions in an agreement with Raul Castro.

What we didn’t yet know was what unbelievable event would unfold during our sea day—something most crew have never experienced during their years at sea.

Coming up next:  MAN OVERBOARD!

CHOCAL: FROM BEAN TO BAR

In my previous post, I described the first steps in making chocolate, and mentioned how I talked my way into a factory tour for the following day.

Orlando made good on his promise to arrange a factory tour during our second day at Chocal.  After Bruce and I worked for awhile at separating cocoa beans, Orlando escorted us to the machines off the back patio where we met up with one of the ladies.  As she explained (in Spanish) the chocolate-making process and showed us the machines, Orlando translated as I attempted to record the information on my digital recorder.  As I sit here trying to listen to Orlando’s translation, the background noise of the loud machinery is making it very difficult to hear him!  Note to self:  Purchase ear plugs for the workers, because they aren’t using any, and they are going to lose their hearing!

Picking up where we left off previously, the next step in the chocolate-making process is for those cocoa nibs to be ground up in a grinding machine to liquefy the cocoa butter and produce what is now called chocolate liquor or chocolate liquid.

Next, the chocolate liquor goes through a second refining process to further reduce the particle size of the cocoa mass.  Cocoa nibs contain approximately 53 percent cocoa butter (depending on the cacao species); so, it is during this second refining process that the percentage is either increased or decreased, depending on the desired finished product.  For chocolate bars, cocoa butter needs to be added, so the chocolate liquor is transferred to another machine where it will be combined with additional cocoa butter and other ingredients.  This process is described below.  For cocoa powder, the cocoa butter content must be reduced.  At Chocal, they use a syringe to remove as much as possible.  Next, the chocolate liquor is pressed to remove more of the cocoa butter.  Baking soda is added to the remaining cocoa and the “press cake” is cooled, pulverized, and sifted to form cocoa powder.

“Press cake” is also used to form cocoa balls for hot cocoa drinks.  This is what the ladies are making in the photo later in this post (and in the photos in my last post).

To produce eating chocolate,  extra cocoa butter is added to the chocolate liquor in a mixing machine, along with sugar and other ingredients, depending on the type of chocolate being made at the time.  In all, cocoa butter accounts for about 25 percent of the weight of most chocolate bars.

For milk chocolate, milk powder is used at Chocal, whereas fresh milk is used at Cadbury.  (If you have seen a Cadbury Milk Chocolate label, you will notice the logo showing that a “glass-and-a-half” of milk goes into each block.

After the chocolate is mixed, it is transferred to another machine to refine it.  Next the chocolate goes into a conching machine.  Conching is a kneading process that develops the flavor of the chocolate, releases some of the bitterness, and gives the resulting chocolate a smooth texture.  In general, the longer chocolate is conched, the smoother the texture will be.  It can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days.  Chocal conches their chocolate for just a few hours; however, the entire mixing process takes a full day between the three machines.

After the chocolate is conched, it must be tempered before it gets poured into chocolate bar molds.  Friction during the conching process naturally heats up the chocolate.  That liquid is then brought down to temperature using a marble table that remains cold due to the air conditioning in the room.  The women spread the chocolate on the table using metal spatulas, mix the chocolate around, and fold it inwards to cool the chocolate quickly.

Tempering is a stabilizing process that helps keep the chocolate crystals from clumping together, which would give the chocolate a grainy texture.  It also gives the chocolate a smooth, glossy appearance and prevents the cocoa butter from separating out.  If done correctly, the chocolate bar will shine on the outside and make a snapping sound when broken in half.

Once the chocolate is tempered, it is poured into molds.  The women at Chocal do this by hand and tap the molds to remove any remaining air bubbles.

Finally, the chocolate is cooled and then removed from the molds for packing.

It was fantastic getting to see how the entire chocolate-making process is done, from bean to bar.  The machines were so much smaller and different than the ones I had seen in the large, modern factories; so, at times, it was a bit confusing trying to figure out which machine was doing what.  Some of it got lost in translation, and much of it just got lost due to not being able to hear!  I’m still not exactly clear on which of these machines do which job, but I figured it out for the most part:

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I believe this is where the cacao beans are roasted.

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After the beans are roasted, they go through a winnower to separate the cocoa nibs from the shells.  I think that is the job of these machines.

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Once all shells are removed from the cocoa nibs, the nibs are gound in this machine.

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This is the pressing machine where the nibs are pressed to make chocolate liquor for chocolate bars.  The remaining “press cake” that is separated from the liquor is used to make cocoa balls for hot chocolate and cocoa powder for baking.  Here, a syringe is used to remove the cocoa butter from the press cake, so the remaining cocoa can be used for cocoa balls and cocoa powder.

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I’m not sure about the purpose of this machine, but it may have been to further process the “press cake” for powder.

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This worker was using the smaller machine to produce fine cocoa powder.

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In this machine, sugar, milk powder, and additional cocoa butter is added to the cocoa liquor and mixed.

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Here, the mixture from the first machine is further mixed and refined.

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This where the magic happens!  The refined mixture is placed in this conching machine to grind it to a homogeneous consistency.  The full mixing and conching process takes one day.

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This is the marble table where the chocolate is tempered.

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Finally, the chocolate is poured into molds for chocolate bars and cooled.

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Nidia, our tour guide

At the conclusion of the tour, we returned to our group to assist with packaging the chocolate.  After we finished, the others made their chocolate purchases while Bruce and I went to see what the ladies were up to on the patio.  This time, when we said, “Hasta manana!” they believed us and flashed us big smiles.  We would be returning the next day for one last time.

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Milagros, the factory manager

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When we arrived for our final day at Chocal, the woman in the photo above (with the green blouse) ran up to me and gave me a big hug!  Our tour guide, Nidia, did as well.  We were pleased they were happy to see us once again.

After we completed our work inside, Bruce and I joined the ladies while our group hit the gift shop.  Instead of making cocoa balls, the ladies were sorting beans, so I joined in.  My new friend opened up a fresh cacao pod and shared the beans with me.  Although the beans are very bitter, the pulp is sweet and delicious!  The idea is to suck on the beans, and then spit it out without biting into the bean itself.  Yum!

 

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These beans sell for $2/lb.

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While we were working, some local farmers stopped by to sell their beautiful vegetables.  Nidia ran back to call out to the others, and some of the ladies ran up to make a purchase.

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The time came to say “Adios!” and “No, no manana” to the women, give them hugs, and make our way to the bus for our final ride back down the mountain from Altamira.  As I gazed out the bus window during the bus ride, I knew I wanted to return.  Bruce did, too, and the wheels in our minds started turning…  (More details will follow in a future post.)

In my next post, I’ll show you around RePapel, a women’s co-op that recycles paper and makes beautiful stationary and jewelry for sale.

Meanwhile, here are additional photos shot at and around Chocal:

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A local farmer spread his cacao beans out in the sun to dry.

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CHOCAL: MANY HANDS MAKE LIGHT WORK

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My last post about Chocal focused on the cacao plantation before the beans get transferred to the factory.  Those little seedlings we planted will take approximately 3-1/2 years to grow before the cacao pods are ready to be harvested for production.  May to July is the biggest harvest period each year, and a smaller harvest is done each November.

Each cacao pod yields 50-80 beans.  Four pods will yield 1-2 pounds of beans, which in turn yields one pound of chocolate.

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Marcia translates for Naomi, the vice president of Chocal Women’s Co-op, while she explains the chocolate-making process.

Once the beans are dried over at the nursery, they are ready to be sorted at the factory.  That was a job I nailed!  We were shown what “bad” beans look like, and which ones should be tossed aside onto a plate.  The good ones were to be thrown into the bucket.  While others got caught up contemplating whether each bean they had picked up was “good” or “bad,” I decided to look for the best beans and pick them up simultaneously with both hands.  Once I got two handfuls of beans, I tossed them into the bucket.  For me, this was so much easier and quicker, because a majority of the beans were “good.”

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On Day 2, Bruce worked on filling a new bucket, sorting good beans from bad.

The buckets of good beans went on to the next step in the chocolate-making process:  roasting.  This is done for 20 minutes, and during this process, the shell of the cocoa bean separates from the bean kernel, and is removed.  The cracked beans—now called cocoa nibs– are then transferred to the winnower where 85% of the shells get separated from the cocoa nibs.  Next, the nibs are spread out on pans to be manually examined for any remaining shell fragments.

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Steven explains how to remove the shell fragments from the cocoa nibs as Erin (right) looks on.

While some of our group worked on sorting the beans, others picked out shell fragments from the cocoa nibs.  After a while, the groups switched stations.

As good as I was at sorting beans, I was awful at picking out the shell fragments from the nibs.  My below-average dexterity, and my even worse patience with this task left me frustrated and hopping back over to “crash” the group at the sorting table.  I was there to work, not waste time getting frustrated over shell fragments!

While the co-op workers (including the sons of a few of the women) took our sorted beans and nibs to be processed (more on that in my next post), we were ushered into a room to learn how to mold chocolate.  Molding chocolate effectively requires expertise, so we didn’t actually mold the chocolate to be sold.  Instead, the process was demonstrated by one of the co-op women, and we were given an opportunity to make chocolates for our own consumption during the bus ride back to the ship.  The best part, though, was getting to sample the warm chocolate after we were finished.  Chocolate was spooned into our gloved hands for some good ol’ finger-lickin’ fun!

Finally, we finished our work in the packaging room.  During our three days, Bruce and I attached bar code stickers to the cocoa ball packages and stamped expiration dates on the chocolate bar labels, while others in our group packaged the bars for sale.

While we were in the packaging room, we could see the various chocolate processing machines and tables of molded chocolate bars through the glass windows.  I also had poked my head into the room off the back patio to see what the workers were doing with the machines there.  I was this close to the inner workings of a third-world chocolate factory—nothing like the modern Cadbury factories I had toured in Tasmania, Australia or Dunedin, New Zealand!

It was at that moment the idea was hatched to request a tour and explanation of the factory processes.

I explained to Orlando, one of the IDDI facilitators, that I am so passionate about chocolate and Chocal, that I would be returning with Bruce two more days to volunteer.  Could he possibly arrange for a tour of the factory for the following day during our visit?  We would be willing to skip out on the molding demonstration if we could just have a quick tour and interview with one of the women.  Oh, and could he translate, too?

Orlando promised he would arrange it for us, and he made good on that promise when we returned the following day.

Meanwhile, after we were dismissed from the packaging room, I made a beeline for the gift shop to make a quick purchase before the remainder of the group followed.  I was anxious to get back out on the patio and spend some time watching the women make cocoa balls, before it was time to return to the ship.

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Preparing the pressed cocoa, so it can be shaped into balls to be used for hot cocoa

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It was at this point I felt most frustrated at not having learned Spanish beyond a few basics.  I had so many questions I wanted to ask the women about their life in the DR, their families, and work at Chocal.  Instead, I made do with plenty of smiles and my extremely limited Spanish vocabulary.

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When it was time to leave, Bruce and I said, “Hasta manana!” and smiled at the women.  They responded with a confused look on their face, and “Adios!”  “See you tomorrow?  Really?  I don’t think so!” was what I’m sure they were all thinking—and saying to each other after we left.

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Milagros (left), and the women of Chocal make cocoa balls.

As Bruce and I happily savored our chocolates during the bus ride back, we expressed to each other how we were already looking forward to our return.

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~ MANY HANDS MAKE LIGHT WORK ~

CHOCAL: MAKING A DIFFERENCE AT THE CACAO NURSERY

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61As Adonia cruised into Amber Cove, Bruce and I admired the gorgeous tropical scenery of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic (aka “the DR”).  We were eager to start the day, so we were among the first to disembark after our arrival.  It was too early to board the bus for Chocal; so, we explored Amber Cove, the $90 million-dollar port completed a year ago by Carnival Cruise Lines.  I took several photos of the attractive complex; however, I am eager to write about Chocal.  Amber Cove will have to wait…

In my first post about Fathom Impact Travel, I mentioned we would be helping Chocal with their cacao and chocolate production.  It is a women’s cooperative currently employing thirty women (as well as some of their adult children); however, their goal is to grow the cooperative and thrive.  Helping them to succeed will enable Chocal to hire more local women, and bring more income into their community.

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During the bus ride to Chocal, Leurys, a representative of IDDI (Dominican Institute for Integral Development), prepared us for our upcoming morning at the cacao plantation and chocolate factory.  In addition to learning about Chocal’s creation in 2008 (detailed in the photo above), the entire chocolate-making process was explained, from cacao seedling to chocolate bar.  We would be contributing to many of those processes to help increase production.

I was curious how these women learned the business of producing chocolate.  We were told a consultant from Switzerland was hired to teach them the entire process, and educate them on the special equipment needed to process the cacao.  After the co-op obtained a loan from the U.S.A., the machines were built to specification and delivered to the factory.

Chocal is located high up in the mountains in the town of Altamira (Spanish for “high view”) where cacao grows naturally and abundantly, along with mango and other tropical fruits.  Many local farmers belong to a farming cooperative and make their living by harvesting their cacao and selling the cacao beans.

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Having Chocal in their community provides another buying source for their cacao beans.  When Chocal is in need of more cacao than their own trees produce, they buy from the farmers in their community.  In turn, when those farmers need additional cacao trees for their land, they can purchase young trees from Chocal at cost.  The farmers provide compost for the seedlings, and pay the equivalent of ten cents for each two-foot tall tree they purchase.  This covers the cost of the bag, and the (free) labor is provided by us volunteers.  IDDI representatives work with Fathom and Chocal to facilitate the volunteer process.

It was in the nursery where we ended each of our three volunteer days at Chocal; however, it is where I will begin our tour here, since this is the origin of chocolate.  It all begins with cacao.

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Once the teams were in place at the bag filling station, bag brigade, and seedling planting station; we rocked!  I never noted how much time we spent in production mode (perhaps one hour); but, whatever the time period, we produced.  Our bus load of +/- thirty volunteers filled bags and planted 504 seedlings our first day, and 584 the second day. Our group had less time to work on the third day; however, we still managed to complete 403 bags.  That’s teamwork!

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We met Jessica, age 9, and her dad, Len, during the first night aboard ship.  They were wonderful table mates, and became fast friends.  Erin and Erin were college friends who we met during the bus ride.

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Leurys explained how the bags should be filled to the top and compacted.  Next, a hole is inserted in the soil and a cacao seedling is planted.

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Carola (right), helps plant the seedlings.  She was our table mate on another night aboard ship.

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Gumarcindo lines up the seedlings on our first day.  Our group planted 504!

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By Day 3, Gumarcindo was trying to figure out where to put them all!

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These little cacao trees will be sold to area farmers at cost– about ten cents per tree.

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My new amigo, Gumarcindo.

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After our work was completed, Gumarcindo, the nursery manager, showed us how the beans are processed at the nursery, before they are taken next door to the factory.

First, the cacao pods are carefully removed from the trees, and then manually cut open within 7-10 days of harvest.  The beans and pulp are scooped out from the pod and placed into the top level of boxes in the fermenting room.  After two days at the top level, they are dumped down into the middle level for another two days of fermenting.  Finally, they are transferred into the bottom level where they ferment for an additional two days before being spread out in the sun to dry.

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Although many cacao growers skip the fermenting step before drying their beans, the Swiss consultant explained to the co-op members that fermented beans would make for better-tasting chocolate.

After the fermentation process is complete, the beans are left in the sun to dry to reduce the moisture content from about 60% to 7.5%.  If it looks like it’s going to rain, the roofs are pulled over the bean tables to keep the beans dry.

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The drying process is done carefully and slowly to ensure that off-flavors are not developed.  If the beans are dried too quickly, some of the chemical reactions started in the fermentation process are not allowed to complete their work.  This causes the beans to become acidic and taste bitter.  If the drying is done too slowly, however, mold can develop.

To ensure an even drying process, the beans are spread out in the sun and raked or turned periodically.  In all, the drying process takes about six days.

Once dried, the beans are packed in large sacks and stored in Chocal’s warehouse that is kept cool and dry.  Under these conditions, the cacao beans can be stored for years.

My next post will be about those cacao beans that are processed to become delicious chocolate!

Meanwhile, as our tour came to an end, we said “Hasta manana!” (See you tomorrow!”) to Gumarcindo and the IDDI facilitators helping out at the nursery.  All of them gave us a funny look, because nobody comes back tomorrow if they are on a Fathom cruise.  As a matter of fact, the Fathom website doesn’t allow for registering for multiple Impact activities at the same location.  Besides, most people opt for a variety of volunteer opportunities rather than just one.  Not me.  Between my passion for all things chocolate and my strong belief in the women’s co-op; I was determined to spend as much time as possible at Chocal. Bruce was fine with it, so I called Fathom’s headquarters as soon as we signed up for the cruise and pleaded my case.  Happily, the gal I spoke with empathized and did a manual override of their computer system to sign us up for to volunteer at Chocal all three full days in the DR.

When Bruce and I returned the following day, we found Gumarcindo and greeted him with, “Hola, Gumarcindo!  Que lo que?”  (“Hello, Gumarcindo!  What’s up?”)  (“Que lo Que” is a special DR greeting that is very much appreciated by the locals, so we enjoyed using that greeting often!)

A big grin and a fist bump greeted us back!

On the third day, I was sad to have to tell Gumarcindo, “No hasta manana.”  I didn’t know if or when we would ever be back…

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Next up:

CHOCAL:  MANY HANDS MAKE LIGHT WORK

Impact Travel: A New Adventure

After a few dozen big ship cruises as a guest lecturer (mostly travel photography) and crafts instructor, I was ready for a different cruising experience.  Back in 2002, my mom had wanted to take a river cruise on the waterways of Belgium and Holland, so we paired up for a non-working cruise and headed to Europe.  One time on an intimate riverboat was all it took; I was hooked and never thought I would return to the big ships again.

That all changed when some friends bounced an idea off us that was different than the typical big ship cruising experience:  impact travel.  I had never heard of the concept in cruising, but Fathom, a one-ship cruise line launched by Carnival Cruises last April, had done just that.

Fathom’s 704-passenger former Renaissance ship, Adonia, made headlines by being the first cruise ship to take American passengers to Cuba; but, what I didn’t know was that the ship sails to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic for one-week impact travel cruises on alternate weeks.

Puerto Plata wasn’t on the top of my bucket list for destinations—I had been there before as a teenager on a family cruise—but this opportunity intrigued me.  After hearing David and Melody’s excitement about the concept and their idea of having us experience it together, I did some further research.  Bruce and I both loved what we discovered, so we signed on.  After visiting them in Vero Beach, we’ll drive down to Miami and hop aboard Adonia together.

Now, before I explain further and (possibly) get you excited about the concept of impact travel, I recently learned from two different USA Today articles that Fathom will cease operations in spring of this year.  The ship has been sailing far under capacity, and the cruise line is losing money.  Unless you book your cruise and travel soon, you will be out of luck.

We got an affordable deal– $850 for BOTH of us, including port fees and taxes, for a one-week cruise.  Even at this great price, it is doubtful the ship will sail anywhere near capacity.

On our day of departure, we will set sail from Miami to Puerto Plata.  During our transit, we will participate in workshops to learn about the culture and prepare us for our chosen volunteer activities.  While the ship stays docked at Amber Cove in Puerto Plata, passengers will have the option of being tourists, volunteering, or both.  Those of us who will be volunteers will spend three days immersing ourselves in the local culture and collaborating with local volunteers on community projects that will have an impact on education, environment, economy, and more.

The need in Dominican Republic is tremendous.  The poorest half of their population receives less than one-fifth of the country’s annual GDP, and most of them live below the poverty line.  Job prospects for women are especially scarce.

While looking over the various choices of how we could help make an impact, one option stood out above and beyond the rest:  Chocal, a women’s cooperative that cultivates organic cacao plants and produces chocolate from bean to bar.

Under the guidance of Dominican Institute for Integral Development (IDDI), Chocal has been successful in creating jobs, providing local cacao growers with an outlet to sell their plants, and generating income from the sales of their organic chocolate.  Along the way, the women have learned new skills and have been afforded the opportunity to continue their education.  Flexible work hours have allowed the women to do all this while still caring for their families.

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As volunteers, we will participate in the complete cacao production cycle:  from planting and cultivating the organic cacao trees, to sorting cacao beans, to molding chocolate, and packaging the final product for sale in their gift shop and aboard Adonia.

According to Fathom’s website, by helping to improve production and increase sales, we will be helping Chocal to thrive, so it can hire more local women and provide more income to the region.

This is a win-win!  Visiting a full-production cacao plantation was on my bucket list; however, trying to incorporate it as part of a vacation with my husband was proving to be difficult.  Bruce is totally on board with this and has even enthusiastically agreed with my idea of volunteering all three available days at Chocal rather than choosing two other activities.  Our friends will also be joining us on one of the days at Chocal, and then spending another day making clay water filters.  I’m sure we’ll have a lot of stories to share that evening over dinner back onboard ship!

Stay tuned for more on this upcoming adventure!*

*Unfortunately, thieves have gotten smarter and figured out how to prey on travel bloggers, so for security reasons (even though we live in a guarded community and have a house sitter), our travel dates will not be noted, and future posts will not be published until after we return.