Traveler's Tales

From Drafting Table to Mud Bricks in Cusco

by Steven Learner

CUSCO, PERU – Over the past year, I have been looking for ways to contribute. To do something more than my usual work designing residences and galleries in New York. I closed my office for the Christmas/New Year's holiday and promised myself it would be an opportunity to try something new, to look beyond my own small world and volunteer my time.

Starting with a simple web search of "volunteer + vacation," I came across many organizations that offered these kinds of trips, but only a few that fit my schedule and my temperament. I focused on what I felt I could handle and would benefit me personally. Working with street children in India would break my heart, I don't have any interest in saving sea turtles, and trips to Costa Rica seemed too teen travel.

I found an organization called Globe Aware that focuses on environmental responsibility and provides volunteers all over the world. They had a one-week program in Cusco, one of the most visited cities in Peru, that involved building and design. I volunteered alone but was part of a team of four others from DC, LA, Atlanta, and Miami. We met in Peru. We were all in our 30s-50s, from varied professions, all experienced travelers, all interested in being engaged and giving something to the world.

Peru is vast, and many small villages are without schools. So children go to the cities to attend school and live in albergues — youth hostels of a sort — during the academic year. The albergue we were assigned to is home to about 25 kids, aged 9-15. Given my architectural training and passable Spanish, I figured I was well suited to the project of building a greenhouse that would provide fruits and vegetables for the children's meals. It was fantastic how in a few days we became a team and I learned a new way to work — without extensive pre-planning, on-demand materials, or specific tools for each task. I had to adapt to where I was and to our goals. That we were providing a structure meant everything; that it was less than perfectly constructed meant nothing.

We lived as the kids lived, which meant a week of cold showers, communal meals, and bunk beds. I ate fried yucca and roasted guinea pig, the local delicacy. I slept in my clothes for warmth every night and woke to the sound of roosters in the morning.

I added four days onto my trip to visit the Sacred Valley and hike Machu Picchu. Under any circumstances, this would have been a truly amazing experience, but it was made even more poignant by having spent time living at the albergue.

Since returning to New York, I have continued to look for projects that go beyond what I know. I'm consulting with a foundation that's building 200 relief homes in Haiti. The sustainable housing prototype my company designed for a competition recently broke ground and will help rebuild Greensburg, Kansas, which is still recovering from a devastating 2007 tornado.