On my way to the Americas, I picked up a book called All the Birds in the Sky, by author Charlie Jane Anders. The book tells the story of a witch and a scientist who fall madly in love, and the forces which conspire to pull them apart.
Perfectly paced, funny and poignant, it’s the kind of book that deserves to be read and adored (please do so at once). But what really drew me to the novel was its title, which I've shamelessly appropriated above. In a single sentence, it conjures up images of magic grounded in earthly things. Birds can fly, after all, and that has always made them just a little magical. So what notion could be more enchanting than that of every the bird in the sky?
When I came to Paracas, a small beach town along Peru’s coast, I was a little disappointed. Run-down and grey, under grey skies, it seemed an inauspicious penultimate destination for my trip to South America. But I was determined to see the famous Islas Ballestas--a floating wildlife preserve just a off the Paracas shore, known to penniless travellers as the "Budget Galapagos.”
On the morning of my boat trip out to the islands, the sky debated blue and grey, and eventually settled on grey. Scrambling aboard a speedboat in the early morning chill, I squeezed between Peruvian tourists and donned my scandalously bright orange life preserver. At first, the tour seemed doomed to mediocrity and gloom. Our boat sped past the Candelabra--a mysterious geoglyph carved into Peru’s coast thousands of years age--and our guide muttered vague, incomprehensible theories about the strange marking, her voice lost beneath the engines’ roar.
We bounced across the water until we reached the isles; a collection of sharp red and yellow rocks assembled in a vaguely crossbow shape. The boat slowed to bank around the islands, letting the passengers glimpse penguins and sea lions, and that was when I saw them.
The biggest of the islands was a mound, a curvy hilltop which seemed, at first, to be black and white. A second glance revealed this to be wrong--the hill was brownish yellow. But it was covered in a thick skin of birds. There were hundreds, thousands, millions of turns and guls and pelicans, waddling and flapping and leaping from the rocks. I watched in awe as countless more birds arrived, sweeping over my boat, gliding across the water in vast delta formations.
From afar, the avian ranks looked like a swarm of buzzing bees, with the island as their hive. As our boat drew closer, squawks and chirrups filled the air, and wings spread and soared in a feathery whirl around us. The birds were gossiping, no doubt, peering at the peculiar wildlife which had come wandering in their midst.
I thought about the book I had read on my way to this continent, three short months ago. It had featured a Parliament of Birds. If there was such a thing, I mused, this must surely be it.
The day may have been grey, and the town far from magic.
But there, wheeling over me, were all the birds in the sky.
> As well as a trip to the Islas Ballestas, I recommend spending a few hours at the Paracas national preserve; a vast, empty space where desert buffets against coast. The sandy preserve may be largely beige in colour, but it's one of those rare instances where beige is beautiful.
> Alas, I'm soon to leave South America... but like all good travellers, I intend to take a rather circuitous route home.
> Charlie Jane Anders' book is genuinely excellent, especially for those of the nerdy persuasion, and it can be found here.