Review by Daniel Rey
Manatees and tapirs in the water, caimans and jaguars on the riverbanks, howler monkeys and spectacled bears under the rainforest canopies. For centuries these were perennial sights along Colombia’s great waterway, the Magdalena, a 1,000-mile river whose basins cover a quarter of the most biodiverse country on earth. As Jordan Salama, a young American writer of Argentine, Syrian, and Iraqi Jewish descent, explains in Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena, thanks to damage wrought by prospectors, poachers and seven decades of intransigent armed conflicts, the river no longer overflows with wildlife.
Travelling by mule, riverboat and motobalinera – ‘a wooden platform fixed with rail wheels, propelled by a motorcycle along a single line of railroad track’ – Salama proceeds from the river’s source in the Andes to its mouth in the Caribbean. The result is a lyrical and wistful travelogue, aware that although he sees river turtles, cocoi herons and some red howler monkeys, the river’s best days now belong to memory and to the works of the Magdalena delta’s favourite son – Gabriel García Márquez.
Salama evokes how the character of the river alters with the seasons, the differences between shallow and deep water, and how it ‘flows through just about every kind of landscape – mountains, jungles, plains, and swamplands.’ His supporting cast of interlocutors includes boatmen, fishermen, anthropologists, a jewellery-maker, and a librarian whose shelves are the pouches strapped onto his two donkeys, Alfa and Beto. ‘Each of these encounters,’ Salama writes, ‘takes place in such a vastly different setting that it could at times feel like an entirely different country altogether, if it weren’t for the unmistakable Magdalena threaded throughout the varying landscapes, carrying sediments from places past.’
Salama is often a mellifluous writer. He describes, for example, how the town of Mompox, on a Magdalena tributary, ‘gave you the feeling that it was a place touched by God… Each night, as if on a schedule, bats descended on the dimly lit streets and glowing plazas, fluttering in and out of the open doors of the sixteenth-century churches and underneath the sweeping arches of the grand Spanish colonial homes.’
He is also a conscientious guide, commendably honest about the ethics of travel writing and aware of the environmental impact his flights will have had on delicate ecosystems such as the ones he describes. It is a pity his book comes just a year and a half after Wade Davies – a Canadian anthropologist with Colombian citizenship – published Magdalena: River of Dreams (2020), a more comprehensive work that navigates similar themes, including the hope of regenerating the Magdalena and, with it, Colombia.
Even so, Salama’s knowledgeable and warm-hearted account of his month-long journey through the Magdalena’s still-wondrous scenery, and his interactions with its diverse characters, offer the reader some of the finest vicarious travel. It is a short and refreshing dip into this ever-changing river.