Colombia – Chapter 1: The Anatomy of a Schlep

Another exciting Septura adventure began innocuously enough for me as I dropped my children off early at the school gates and legged it to Catford station. My travel arrangements were as tight as they possibly could be, so I crow-barred myself,  my bass trombone and luggage onto a busy rush hour Thameslink train, knowing I only had 3 minutes to make my next connection. Dodging City commuters on the Farringdon platform I caught the Lizzie Line* train to Heathrow Terminal 5, in part thanks to a slight delay while masses of passengers tried to squeeze into the carriage. Seeing two familiar faces I quietly piled into the train behind BBC Symphony Orchestra veterans Helen Vollam & Phil Cobb and – unbeknownst to them or indeed myself – we were all about to embark on one of the most arduous journeys of our lives.

Rallying with the other Septura personnel in the calming Terminal 5 departures area, I noticed Phil was wearing nearly the exact same garments I had just left my 9-year-old son wearing that morning for his school PE session. This goes to show that Arsenal and Spurs fans have a lot more in common than most people would dare to admit…

The first leg went smoothly enough as we travelled to Madrid. Upon boarding our connecting flight to Bogotá we encountered our first bouts of what I might describe as ‘social turbulence’. I had only just managed to successfully navigate my trombone onto the aircraft and into the overhead locker (a feat which readers of previous Septura blog posts will know can be very stressful and fraught with personal hardships and anxiety for trombonists travelling by air) before an elderly Colombia lady took offence to its presence and forcibly attempted to remove it from its stowed position. Despite the fact her minuscule bag slotted in perfectly in front of my sleek and stylish DAC trombone case, she began shouting at me in Spanish, presumably about how that particular overhead locker belonged to her and her alone. Luckily a kind member of the flight crew and the lady’s granddaughter managed to restrain her before any damage was done to my trombone. Crisis averted we buckled in and were soon in the air en route to Bogotá. As soon as the fasten seatbelt sign was switched off, Coxy had the unfortunate experience of having his knees crushed by someone violently reclining of the seat in front of him. Etiquette is ambiguous around reclining one’s seat on packed flights, and it was Simon’s opinion that his neighbour could have asked or at the very least warned him that the manoeuvre was imminent. Another heated disagreement ensued and we were left wondering if this rowdiness was to be the theme of our Colombia experience.

The flight itself was the better part of 10 hours, and most of the group were plugged into the inflight entertainment system (I really enjoyed ‘Anatomy of a Fall’ – ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ and Napoleon – ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐). We’re lucky enough on this trip to have two exceptionally talented Septura debutantes with us. In addition to the aforementioned legendary trombonist Helen Vollam, of BBCSO & Bones Apart fame, we’re also joined by superstar Britten Sinfonia trumpeter Imogen Whitehead, who took advantage of a spacious back row bulkhead seat to sneak in a cheeky mid-air practice session in her practice mute. You see something new every day! This struck me as slightly unfair (the practicalities of practicing a bass trombone in the confines of Iberia’s less-than-spacious seating layout did not escape me) but I was impressed enough by Imogen’s diligence and dedication to the cause that I nearly restrained myself from teasing her for it – though I did take a picture for posterity.

Landing in bustling Bogotá at around 10pm local time (2am back in the UK) we filed through customs with our luggage and piled into a 7-seater battle bus, every cubic centimetre spoken for. As we attempted to leave El Dorado airport’s car park we bore witness to a Darwinian battle  of wits where fortune favoured only the bravest drivers, and those who beeped their horns with the most ferocity and aggressively inched their way out towards the exit gates would survive. Eventually we were released from the loggerhead and were hurled into a hectic night time metropolis, with mopeds whizzing alongside us, only occasionally eyeing up the contents of our luggage hold, full-to-the-brim with unusual looking foreign cases.

Hotel Opera in Bogota

30 minutes later we arrived at our hotel, which bore a striking resemblance to the enchanted Casa Madrigal in the beloved Disney film ‘Encanto’, a favourite of my kids which is itself set in a fictional part of Colombia. We had been promised a meal upon arrival, and though we were told the kitchen was closed (I note this was 3 minutes before its officially listed operating hours dictated it should, mind) the staff kindly returned to whip us up some empanadas, ceviche and some tasty mains which were well appreciated after the epic journey we had. No time for cervesas, we slept in preparation for the next leg of the journey.

Some delicious empanadas

8am the next morning we returned to another, smaller battle bus (this time accompanied by a taxi for those who couldn’t fit) and we set off – straight back to the airport. From the confines of my seat I admired Bogotá’s colourful cityscape, nestled into some of the northernmost Andes, and gorgeous by anyone’s definition. Knowing we would be returning to the capitol in a couple of days with a chance to do some exploring proper, we checked in for our flight to Montería with few regrets of opportunities missed in this great city. As one of the Greats once said: ‘I’ll be back’.

Our flight was delayed, and we boarded quite a bit later than scheduled. Once it became apparent there would be an even further delay as we sat on immobile on the tarmac we witnessed another interesting Colombian cultural practice; every few minutes the passengers ironically applauded & cheered the flight crew for the inconvenience of the extended delay. On round 3 or 4 of the ironic clap we all joined in the rowdy, cathartic exercise. Explanations over the tannoy did little to quell the crowd, as they jeered and mocked the flight crew until we finally pushed back and taxied to the runway, well over an hour late.

We finally arrived in Montería, a city an hour’s flight north of Bogotá and situated in the Caribbean region. I had anticipated this change in climate and wore my best shorts & summer shirt but that still did little to act against the sweltering 33 degree furnace we walked off the plane steps into. The flight delay meant we needed to head straight to the venue to rehearse for the first concert of the tour. Holding out hope that the Catedral San Jeronimo would be fitted with industrial powered air conditioning, we arrived to discover that the 19th century cathedral was open-aired, and the temperature inside was a balmy 32 degrees. The sweatiest rehearsal in the history of brass chamber music followed, and the less said about it the better – aside from the fact that the group sounded phenomenal despite the adversity.

The Cathedral in Montería

We were all desperate to ‘chill out’ in our hotels; to shower (Wim Hof style), rest and regroup before the evening’s sauna/concert. To our horror we discovered only 3 of the rooms booked for us were actually available. With morale deep into its overdraft Coxy stepped up and found rooms for himself and 3 others in different accommodation elsewhere in a city centre defined by speeding motorbikes, honking car horns and incredibly powerful speakers pumping the local music outwardly into the street from every. single. doorway. We rallied, refuelled and set off to the cathedral a couple of hours later wearing a slightly modified dress code to beat the heat.

The performance itself was almost an afterthought for me as the gruelling travel, jet lag and severe heat made base level survival my ultimate priority. It’s funny how the mind works, because this shift in priorities allowed me to be unshackled from some of my typical internal psychological tormentors, such as my signature self doubt and impostor syndrome. As a result I really enjoyed the performance despite the heat, and the group as a whole sounded stellar despite all the chips being stacked against it. Massive kudos to my colleagues, especially the two superstars who made their Septura debuts in what was essentially the same climate as a sauna. From the first rousing notes of Finzi’s ‘God Has Gone Up’ to the final breathtaking chords of Copland’s ‘Appalachian Spring’ the group played a blinder – and not solely because sweat had dripped into everyone’s eyes.

We debriefed as best we could in a nearby salsa bar, where speakers blared deafening music and made speaking nearly impossible. Enjoying margaritas & a couple of cervesa – nothing loco – I reminisced with Coxy about the group’s formation a decade ago. I for one slept like a log after the schlep of the preceding 42 or so hours, readying myself to tackle phase two of our Colombian adventure: Sincelejo.

*I’m reliably informed this nickname for Crossrail (London’s newest underground line, officially called the Elizabeth Line) was coined by none other than Dr Simon Cox – way before anyone even thought of calling it that.