Lessons from the condor



On the second day of our trip to the Canyon de Colca we go to a special place called “el cruz del condor” to try and spot some Condors. These massive vulture-like birds measure an average of 3 metres across the wings, weighing a whopping 11 kilos (15 with full bellies). Condors are the king scavengers- picking the landscape clean of carcasses~rough work, but somebody has to do it. They live for a long time- up to 85 years, and are monogamous. With the potential to glide on thermal drafts for hours at a time, they circle, sometimes alone, sometimes in a group~indicating where the food is, always waiting for the eldest male Condor to feed first… Once something has died, it takes a few days for the Condors to pick up on the smell- but they they can smell a carcass from about 4 kilometres away. Once a year, they also fly (apparently at a maximum speed of 160 km/hr (!) to the coast to the Islas Ballestes (which I will be visiting in a few days time) to clean the beaches of dead baby sea lions and their placentas.

This is a magnificent, strong bird. Its image appears on the ancient textiles, stone tables, pottery of the plethora of cultures that have risen and fallen across Peruvian history. The Puma (force), the Serpent (water), the Condor (immortality)- I’ve seen all three images appear at different moments… Today is the day to contemplate the Condor.

We arrive at the spot really early, and there is nobody there. I stand, gazing at this deep, fertile crack in the earth, eyes peeled. The morning phase of the day is divine- it rained last night so the air is clean, the blue sky lit up by a mellow sun. I could sit here for hours…. as I’ve now learned, watching for birdlife requires patience, letting go of the hope of seeing something, just letting nature unfold in front of your eyes. We see the first one, soaring below us, in broad, slow circles. It catches the drafts of air, working with what it is given to find food. Another appears, this one flying higher, and settles on a rock nearby.

The fact that this bird eats carrion is initially a turn off for me. From my cultural perspective, the word “vulture” has negative connotations. Scavengers, unclean. But in truth, death is a natural part of the cycle of life, and in this sense the Condor plays a vital role, as does the creature that dies. My contemplation of the Condor pushes me to think about the ridiculous distaste that I have for the gassy, decomposing chaotic mess that is death. How I try to escape from it, control it, sanitise it in my mind. I am flesh that will one day break down. I draw on the Condor’s power and stamina, as I watch it glide endlessly. I learn that all things have their place in nature- a purpose to serve….and so do I, although I’m not really sure what that is, yet. Like the Condor, I am circling, scanning, searching for that sustenance, that sense of purpose…..

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