Saturday, May 16, 2015

Story Saturday: Coffee in Machu Picchu, or, This is what you buy when you pay a storyteller

Here is a little "behind the scenes" bit about how storytellers work.

Two weeks before flying home to Hungary for the summer I got an email inviting me as a performer to Nespresso's unveiling of a new, Peruvian coffee flavor. Even though the gig was set for the day after I land (with a 6 hour jet lag), it was too intriguing to pass up.
The event took place in the Budapest central library that used to be a palace back in the day, and some of the reading rooms still look like they are out of Harry Potter. I love that building, and used to go to the Griffindor common room Humanities reading room to study before exams:
The theme of the event, obviously, was Peru, and in the vein of "uncovering something new" they asked me to tell a 10 minute historical story about the discovery of Machu Picchu. Since it was a completely new story for me, I headed to the library. I had background in telling Peruvian folktales (my very first paid gig 8 years ago was at a Peruvian exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts), but I was only vaguely familiar with Machu Picchu. First I read a bunch of stuff about the site itself, and then I headed to to find Hiram Bingham's journals on the discovery.
Plot twist: Bingham was not the first person to find Machu Picchu. Not even the first European. Also, being a white dude at the turn of the last century, his journal was peppered with off-hand comments on the "Indian race," and at one point he called the Conquest of Peru a "charming classic." I really had no love for the guy, but a gig is a gig, and the journal did contain some nuggets that I could work with.
So I did this: I painted the image everyone (including me) usually has in their mind about the discovery of a "lost city" - and then I structured the story around disassembling it. Ad one: Hiram Bingham wasn't the first explorer to find the city. Ad two: He wasn't even looking for Machu Picchu. He was looking for Uiticos, the last capitol of the Incas. (Here I also added a bit about the fall of the Inca empire and the Spanish conquest - another interesting rabbit hole I went down, browsing some of the chronicles that have been published in Spanish and English. It balanced out the eurocentric tone of the journals). Ad three: He didn't exactly cut himself through the jungle to get there. There was a road, and the locals also knew the way to the ruins (they just cared more for the terraces that were still great for cultivation).
Since the story was performed at a coffee event, I kept an eye out for coffee-related bits. I lifted a short anecdote from the same chapter in the journal where Bingham describes how the kerosene in their saddlebags leaked all over the food supply, so they had to start a day's mountain climbing journey with nothing but a mug of coffee in their stomach. Lo and behold, there was a hook for the presentation of Peruvian coffee culture, following my performance.
I rounded off the story with the part of Bingham's journals that I could appreciate: His deep admiration and respect for the beauty of nature. I lifted his description of the first time he saw Machu Picchu, and the way he recognized that the world needs to find out about the place, and learn about the history. The moral of the story was not that the explorer was perfect or heroic; it was that sometimes the right person at the right place is the one that sees beauty in hidden places.
Also, coffee. Definitely coffee.

Piecing this story together was an interesting challenge. I like working with historical stories, and you don't get gigs like this very often: The client knows exactly what they are looking for and gives you clear instructions, but also allows enough flexibility for the story to really take shape, and fit with your own storytelling style. Arrangements like this are ideal for both parties, and if you are as research-inclined as me, they are also tremendously fun.


  1. When I was a teenager, I went through a period I was absolutely fascinated with Incas culture and history. I read nearly only stuff about it. Yeah, it was a long lkong time ago, but when I hear about Incas people, something still stirs up inside me :-)

    I wish I could hear your performace.

  2. I really enjoyed getting to see inside your story "recreating" process! What a beautiful library! I can only imagine how magnificent the original castle was.
    Join the WeekendCoffeeShare!
    I've made my post at Life & Faith in Caneyhead.

  3. How fun to hear about your research and how you prepare for a gig.

  4. Thanks for this little tour of how you get ready for a gig - it was really interesting! I really like the 'debunking' format you went for, because you're completely right I imagined explorers hacking through the jungle to find Machu Picchu, so it made me laugh to hear that there were roads and locals to give directions. Not really the romantic image we all have in mind!

  5. I can only imagine what it would be like to be in that library.

    Early exploration fascinating. What we take for granted nowadays was incredibly difficult back then.

  6. 1. Whoa! That library! <3
    2. Thank you for the behind-the-scenes tour! I often forget storytellers have to tell 'new' stories entirely (ie not retell classically'told' stories) someimtes and it's not just about adapting old ones and researching those to find your version of the story. Thank you!
    Just curious; although it was a historical story gig, did you weave in any folktales as well?

    1. No, I only had time for the one story. I did sneak in part of the chronicle about the history of Peru... Kinda sad though, I know some amazing Peruvian folktales! :)

  7. First of all, I'd do any kind of research in that gorgeous room. But second, I adored hearing how you pulled together the story and presented the truths v. the fable. Very interesting.

  8. That room is amazing. I would live there, if I could! I would love to attend a live storytelling. Hopefully I'll be able to find a few places in Vancouver once I move!