Today was not an easy day. My group did the recycled paper activity at RePapel this morning: we were the last Fathom group to do so, because Fathom is disbanding (as is widely known) and RePapel is closing. When I was here in January, one of the NGO liaisons expressed worry about RePapel as being the project that would be most difficult to continue in Fathom’s absence. But I kept hoping something would come through to save it. It’s genuinely hard to think about: we will go home and go on with our regular middle-class lives but for the women who had come to rely on RePapel for employment and income, the future is bound to be uncertain. I have to admit that I always took the full-throated cheer and warm welcome of the RePapel ladies with a grain of salt. Was it genuine or were they putting on a show for us tourists? I still wonder a little but today it dawned on me that they got to come to work every day and feel special and valuable as well as useful and productive. There aren’t many jobs for women in Puerto Plata other than in the tourism industry, which requires more education than these women probably have, as well as access to transportation and child care. So RePapel was filling a gap on several levels. They really tried to put on a brave face for us, and it almost worked. At the end of our morning there—we made paper, smoothed dried sheets, rolled beads out of recycled magazines, and made jewelry out of our beads—Juanita, the most loud and cheerful of the group, led everyone in singing and dancing to “La Bamba” as they always do, and then the ladies sang another song that I recognized but couldn’t identify. All of a sudden I noticed that Altagracia, the quiet but smiling woman I remembered from last time, was crying, and then I was crying too. Most of us cried before we left. I hugged Altagracia and even though I know she didn’t understand me, I said “Don’t cry! You’re making me cry!” And now we are on the ship and the ladies are…who knows?
Me & Altagracia!
We did have an experience this afternoon that put a little balm on the pain of departure. Early in the week, the Fathom executives on board had mentioned that they wanted to meet with the university groups on board (Tuskeegee U. has 14 students here in addition to our 24). The idea disappeared after that initial mention and I assumed it wouldn’t happen after all. But in today’s Soundings appeared an invitation to an open meeting for all university students and educators. The meeting was led by Katie Dow—I think her title is “Fathom experience manager”—and a recent college grad turned impact guide, Paige. Middle Georgia State University showed up in force and I have rarely been prouder. The students got emotional as they talked about their experiences and how valuable this program has been to them. It was so validating of our work in offering the program but equally, it spoke well of their sincerity and open-heartedness in approaching the activities. I am excited for my last meeting with them tomorrow when I will ask them to talk about what they learned; I’m expecting some excellent reflections. I also met my counterpart from Tuskeegee and it is a little funny how similar we are professionally: both Associate Professors of English who have been Directors of International Programs for 2 years as one-person offices. She is eager to collaborate with MGA, which is awesome. So it’s not clear right now what will happen to the “Fathom experience” but it’s clear that Carnival Plc is not planning to abandon it. I’m still hopeful that it will evolve into something that can continue to be as transformative to future groups of students as this week has been to our current group.
So now we are sailing; everyone made it back on the ship on time and did not have their names called in the Roll Call of Shame before departure. The program is winding down. Tomorrow we have Fathom cohort meetings in the morning and meetings with our MGA cohorts in the afternoon. By voice vote my cohort decided they’d rather have a midafternoon meeting and then be at liberty till we disembark Sunday morning. A few people’s thoughts are turning toward home but I think most of us are determined to live in this moment a while longer.