I went on a trip to Dominican Republic with Rustic Pathways. It was my first trip with any travel program and my 2nd time to the DR. Since it was a service trip, there were 3 days of service, and 9 days total. The actual service work was pretty hard, but many of my group members were hardly working. Therefore, if you are worried about community service, yes it will be physically demanding, but you work (kind of) at your own pace, so if you are a lazy butt, you probably won't get sore. Conversely, if you are vey motivated, then you will get sore, and you might get blisters (I did!) I am a 15 year old girl, 5'6? who's max push-up count is 10ish. I was able to cope with the work load and get a fair amount of work done. Basically, you just need proper motivation and strength is optional.
During the program, we worked on 2 projects; building an aqueduct and a black water treatment system. We swung pickaxes and used shovels to dig out a trench for the aqueduct. Then, after the pipes were glued down, we filled the trench back in. For the black water treatment system, since the trips before us had pretty much dug out, built, and filled in the treatment system, my trip/group just had to fill in the outside and rebury it, since it was underground. We used buckets and shovels to refill the surrounding area. Now, during any other program, the service projects might be different, but this was just my experience.
Because of traveling from the US to the DR, one must subtract 2 days for air travel. Basically, you are left with 7 actual days of stuff. The itinerary went something like this: JFK to the DR, Travel to home base (day of intro), Service day, Service day, Beach day, White-water rafting, Service day, Last day (travel back to capital and spend the night at an airport hotel), Fly back home. Every day had a sufficient amount of stuff per day, and there were plenty of 20min breaks throughout the whole day. I'd say there was a good balance between fun and work, but if you don't want to work, then choose an exploratory trip instead of a service based one.
The lodging was not 5 star hotel quality, but it was pretty good for a tourist ranch in the middle of a rural mountain community. We were able to have running water, a toilet, 2 sinks, and a shower for 5 girls. Not too jam packed. It was also good lodging at the airport hotel and the beach-side hotel. The food was good, but it's important to prepare the brain and the stomach for a change of food style and taste. We traveled on open sides trucks to our community service projects, which were pretty dirty. They were safe though. By the end of the day, if you worked hard, you were as dirty as the truck. The truck rides averaged out at 20-30min. When taking multiple hour trips, we would ride the local buses, which were very comfy and AIR-CONDITIONED!!!
Yes, there were bugs, and yes, they were big. I had 20+ Mosquito bites by the end of the trip, even with copious amounts of application throughout the day. Even with the Zika scare going on, I have not gotten sick, nor did I take any meds throughout the trip, or get any shots before hand. If your trip doesn't require them, then you probably don't need immunizations. However, it's your money, so spend it as you like. Rustic Pathways always provides "safe" water, and will never let you or force you to drink dirty water. There were numerous opportunities to get burnt and bitten, so we were told to and willingly applied sunscreen and bug spray at every available option.
Our program leaders were awesome. I'm not being cliche. They were seriously awesome. They were kind, good, fun people. They encouraged participation, but also didn't force anyone to do anything they didn't want to do. Peer pressure did that for them. I had 3 native Spanish speakers program leaders and 2 native USA citizen program leaders on my trip. If you are traveling to a foreign country, yes, the language WILL be a barrier. However, my program leaders were a great help, and translated at need. However, in the rural parts of the DR, almost no English is known. Be prepared to learn new words, and if you can speak some Spanish, be prepared to use it. I just finished Spanish 2, and even though the class is boring and I learn nothing, my minimal spanish was really useful.
A few tips:
-overpack. Overpack. OVERPACK. You will get dirty, and no, you don't need dresses and rompers. Also, bring work clothes and non-short shorts. They aren't kidding when they say the locals will think you're scandalous if you wear short shorts. There are few to no chances to wash your clothes, unless you hand wash them. If your packing list says 6-8 shirts, bring 12. Again, OVERPACK.
-bring lots of everything. Extra contacts, extra shampoo, conditioner, body wash, soap, you name it. Cuz you really don't want to be needing it and borrowing it from your mates.
-don't relying a debit card. There are virtually no options to pull money out of an ATM, so bring at least $100USD in cash. More, if you want to buy lots of gifts and snacks. The rustic people will exchange your USD into pesos when you get there, but BRING EXTRA. Always better to be safe than sorry. And besides, if you have extra pesos, you can always change them back. 45 pesos = 1 USD.
-you will get dirty. You will work hard. That's what you signed up for. Mentally prep yourself so you don't become a sissy. No one likes sissys.
-prepare your mind for travel. You will be going to a different place, with different customs, values, and cultures, languages, and food. Embrace the popping of your bubble, and get used to being outside of your comfort zone. You will enjoy yourself more if you go for it. YOLO, and all that crap. Don't leave with any regrets. And lastly, it is always easier to ask for forgiveness from your program leaders than permission.
And yup, I think I touched on everything.