I have just woken from a week-long dream in the Dominican Republic, where effortless living for pale, northern people is facilitated by hard-working local folks. They clean up our messes, prepare massive quantities of food every day, serve bottomless plastic cups of beer and cocktails and remain relentlessly cheerful – "Ola," with ready smiles. They give, we take.
The service sector represents 60% of the Dominican Republic's GDP, with manufacturing (medical instruments, switch boards, other technical equipment) and agriculture (sugar, cacao and coffee) making up the balance. It's vital to the economy and provides a path out of poverty for many Dominicans. According to our Air Transat rep, about 50% of the DR's 10 million people are poor, 30% are middle class and 20% are wealthy.
The poverty assaults your senses as soon as you step off campus: teetering shacks, clouds of exhaust from ancient vehicles and scooters, waterways choked with effluent and garbage. Potable water is hard to come by, even at resorts, where they offer bottled water instead.
Tourists don't want to see this and quickly return to their spotless compounds of privilege and indolent vacation lives. But as our week unfolded, the murmur of my conscience became an insistent rasp. I kept wondering how tour companies could harness the energy of some of us sun worshippers to do something hands-on and meaningful for the local community. After all, boredom sets in quickly when the only decisions you have to make are pool or beach, pina colada or mojito.
I'm not talking about a contrived excursion to a farm to spend 10 minutes grinding cacao beans, but things like working side by side with local people to make clay water filters, teaching conversational English, lending our arms and skills in ways that will materially help (see fathom.org/discover/). One morning of our holiday to give back – optional, of course.
I realize this is not for everyone, and respect that many people work damn hard and are happy to bliss out for a week. But I'm guessing there would be enough takers to develop a program around this idea and offer it at the time of booking. I'm writing to Air Transat to explore this and will report back with their response.
Meanwhile, may 2017 bring moments of joy and discovery. As Alice Walker wrote, "Ask nothing. Live frugally on surprise."