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Polyphony in Paradise

16 April, 2018

Tom Kelly has this account of an unforgettable stay on the Caribbean island of San Andrés.

“Our little Caribbean adventure kicked off a touch nervously. As we landed, an unexplained visible gas mysteriously filled the cabin…

“Then we were subject to one of the more opaque immigration queuing systems in recent memory. Still, they are forgiven for thinking the only people arriving in San Andrés are either locals or tourists! After all, who would expect Stile Antico to be working in paradise?

“It was to be a lightning sojourn, trying to fit in as much as most probably cram into a week. The next morning it dawned on all of us just how Caribbean this part of Columbia is. First job: dig toes into some sand. Just five minutes from a great central beach made that no trouble at all. After some splashing and Frisbee, it was a fast and choppy journey by boat over to an even smaller island (San Andrés is not even ten miles long and about 2 miles wide at the widest point).

“Here we met David, who showed us some Caribbean hospitality: fresh fish was the order of the day. More white sand and clear blue sea were also on the menu, though we had to stay within the white buoys as no one wants to play with the sharks! It was quite a short stop on the island, but when Will told us about enchanted encounters with iguanas there was a mad dash to see them before the return boat.

“Around 30 of them were collected in one spot and despite the innumerable serrated edges and forked tongues there was some heavy petting. For Ben though, it was a stroke too many as one iguana managed to draw blood!

“Back at the hotel there we enjoyed a buffet lunch and some time on loungers by the pool. The sun had really taken its toll for many of us and some respite under umbrellas was in order. On to the concert hall and our first Caribbean concert (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write) in the Banco de la República cultural centre. It was a surprisingly pleasant acoustic, all things considered, and did wonders for a concert that married real corporate sensitivity with engaged communication to our appreciative audience. And they really were appreciative: San Andrés does not often play host to groups performing from as far away as El Reino Unido or music from the late European renaissance, particularly sacred, and sung in Latin.

“The day was topped off with some food at a local Peruvian spot, with some delicious ceviche de pescado and caipirinhas. Our Caribbean debut celebration continued back at the open bar – we were very restrained on that front though, I should add – meeting some travellers from Argentina whom we challenged to an unusual game of darts. I say unusual because the dartboard itself was behind the bar, so our gracious host had to avoid our wilder throws! But we had another day in this tropical paradise and nothing so base as a hangover was going to ruin proceedings, so we turned in for the night at very respectable hours…

“And what a lovely day it was! Day 2 launched with two 6-person farm buggies surging down the island to find new delights beyond the immediate throng of (other) tourists.

“First stop was a cove made of what I think was dead coral. It was sharp and porous and was the nadir before the azure sea beyond. Becky had done a wonderful job of bringing some snorkelling equipment with her on this tour so we enjoyed scanning the water below in search of tropical fish. To be honest, they were not that plentiful, but Becky’s sighting of a barracuda (apparently feet away from my feet) was the trump card for the day.

“We then carried on around the island ring road, turning towards the middle to see the interior before heading back to the hotel to check out and eat some lunch.

“The highlight there was definitely the lemon- and olive oil-dressed avocado, particularly favoured by  our resident avocado-fiend Eleanor, who has endured rather a lack of interesting vegetarian options on our Colombian trip so far.

“Next, we bounced south out of town again to find another beach. This time the local miniature island was a mere chest-deep wade or a swim away.

“On its far side: half of a large wrecked ship, with the other half a mile or so further out. It was a brilliant rusty red, set burning in the early afternoon sun against the many shades of blue surrounding us. After a few minutes staring at it, in awe of the forces that must have rendered something once so mighty now so pathetic and abject, two people appeared on top, tiny against its vastness. At one point it looked as though they were going to jump off but I’m glad they didn’t. Based on their size, they must have been three or four stories up…

“Now we are on the plane to Bogotà. The lightning storm outside, and the much wetter and cooler climate to come, lends a certain perspective on our Caribbean holiday, much as those two people did for the size of that shipwreck. San Andrés is an undoubtedly beautiful place with picture postcard views, and people as friendly and as laid back as you might hope to meet. But there was also a sense lurking in the back of my mind that this comes at a cost. The plastic bottles on the open sea, reports of dying coral, and the parts of town we saw on our inland drive brought into sharp relief the more touristy area of our hotel. Or the couple who, after our concert, filled me in on their plans to build a music academy but rued the lack of basic funding available to them and the cost of land on the island. For me, these elements help contextualise the larger picture of what we do and how lucky we are to do it. We are deeply privileged to do visit the places we do and sing to people whom we have never met and whose lives we do not know. Keeping all this in perspective helps find the meaning in the music we sing and brings it to life.”