Traveling the Magdalena:
an interview with Jordan Salama

photo by Nina Subin

Interviewed by Allan Vorda

Jordan Salama was born in the Bronx and raised in the New York City suburbs. His family hails from Latin America and the Middle East, providing Salama with a background of mixed Syrian, Jewish, Iraqi, and Argentinian culture. He received his BA in Spanish and Portuguese from Princeton University, graduating in 2019. He is now an established nonfiction writer, journalist, and producer whose work appears regularly in the New York Times, National Geographic, and other publications. He also co-created The Lulus TV, which is a digital video series for children on YouTube with a companion channel, Los Lulus, for Spanish-language viewers.

Salama first traveled to Colombia for an internship after his freshman year at Princeton, which was when he became aware of the Magdalena River. For his junior paper he retraced the trade route of his Syrian-Jewish great-grandfather, who was a traveling salesman in the Andes, by exploring the mountain range from Argentina to Bolivia. During his journey down the Magdalena, Jordan learned much about the people he met and their stories. Some of these characters include: the Mohan, a mythical creature who guards the riches of the Magdalena; the hippopotamuses of Pablo Escobar; an eighty-nine-year-old jeweler who continues an ancient tradition of making silver jewelry known as filigree; and a fifty-year-old man who has dedicated his life to delivering books to children in the remote farmlands of the jungle on a burro. The culmination of these stories is Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena (Catapult, $26).

Allan Vorda: You’re from Argentina, the home of the great Jorge Luis Borges. What was your exposure to literature growing up?

Jordan Salama: I wasn’t born in Argentina, I was born in New York, but having grandparents from Argentina and other relatives from all over the Middle East, I grew up around storytellers. I remember, as a kid, sitting beside older family members as they told me stories of our family migrations around the world, from Iraq to New York, Syria to Latin America and beyond. As a result, today I love reading literature that crosses cultures and features stories of these unique blends. Gabriel García Márquez, John Steinbeck, and Andre Aciman are a few of the writers whom I avidly read growing up and who still deeply influence me today.

AV: You covered Lionel Messi and the Argentina national soccer team during the 2016 Copa América tournament. How did you get this assignment at such a young age?

JS: This is one of my favorite stories to tell. In the summer of 2016, Argentina was to play the Copa América in the United States, and I wanted to go see as many games as I could (how could I pass up the opportunity to watch Messi, the best player in history!).

But the tickets and the travel were too expensive. I was a freshman in college at the time and had no journalism experience at all, so I applied for FIFA press credentials, and was shocked when I was accepted. Then I took those credentials to a local Spanish-language newspaper a few towns over from mine and told them, “I have this press pass and can enter all the games and press conferences, I’ll write about the tournament for free if you cover my travel to all these places.” And they said yes! That’s how I ended up in the basement of Soldier Field in Chicago one evening, after Argentina vs. Panama, and got to ask Messi (and Mascherano and others) some questions. Right next to me were commentators and crews from TyC Sports, the Argentine broadcaster I’d watched all throughout my childhood, and ESPN and FOX and others. It was incredible.

AV: What was the genesis of your journey to travel the entire thousand-mile length of the Magdalena River in Colombia?

JS: A coincidence, really. The same summer that I spent time with Messi and co. during the Copa América (which, for Argentina, ended in tragic defeat in the final), I had the opportunity to travel to Colombia for the first time. I spent three weeks there in August of 2016, working as an informal “intern” on a grant for an international wildlife conservation organization. I was based out of their office in Cali, but got to travel throughout the country. I visited communities in the rural northern wetlands, the Pacific coast, the jungle-clad Darien Gap. And I learned that Colombia was a tremendously diverse country (in both people and landscapes). It’s also very misunderstood by the world, known not mainly for its beauty, but for its conflict. Right away I knew I wanted to write about it in a longer form. So when it came time, a few years later, for me to choose a subject for my senior thesis in school, I remembered that many people in Colombia had mentioned the storied Magdalena River as a great way to understand a very misunderstood place. I decided to go back.

AV: You mention Ernesto “Che” Guevara as a “young man in his twenties who set off wide-eyed on an anxious journey that would give him a new lens with which to view the world.” As a nineteen-year-old Princeton freshman making a similar journey, did you feel any kinship with Che Guevara? Did your journey open a new lens for you as well?

JS: I’m not sure if “kinship” is the right word. Of course, Che Guevara is now a very charged figure. When I reference him in the book, I’m speaking more about his famous motorcycle journey through South America while he was still a medical student (studying in the same class as my grandfather, in fact, at the University of Buenos Aires). Reading his journals and watching the excellent film that was since made retracing his trip, I can’t help but see a person who, regardless of what you think of him now, was deeply impacted by the kinds of injustices he observed across the American continent. I think journeys like these have an important power to illuminate, to make connections between seemingly disparate people and cultures and places, and making those connections so that they might inspire change is one of the main purposes of this book and much of my work.

AV: The old woman in Ladrilleros said, “To understand the river is to understand the country.” Did you find this to be true and to what extent?

JS: Colombia’s global reputation has greatly suffered because of its long-running armed conflict. When many people in the United States think about Colombia, they think of narco traffickers and guerrillas and paramilitaries. But traveling the Magdalena, I got a glimpse of a very different country, of everyday life—flying kites, fishing, playing soccer, singing—and its people, centering local voices. The river cuts a cross-section through the heart of Colombia, many nations within one nation, and gives a glimpse into the lives of the many kinds of people who live there. There are Indigenous Colombians and Afro-Colombians and Arab Colombians and more. In many ways, the fate of these communities has mirrored that of the river itself. As someone who didn’t know very much about Colombia prior to these journeys, the river was a great connecting thread through disparate peoples and cultures and a great vehicle for learning. I hope the same goes for my readers.

AV: You write about the FARC guerillas and “’La Violencia,’ “a vicious civil war fought in the countryside between liberals and conservatives, claimed more than two hundred thousand lives between 1948 and 1958.” Were you concerned for your safety even though a peace agreement had been signed a few years before you went to Colombia?

JS: People were definitely concerned for me, but I took steps before I left to ensure that everywhere I went I would be received by someone I trusted, who would then show me around. Once I was in Colombia, I hardly ever felt that I was in danger—erratic bus and boat drivers were the only exceptions! Sadly, violence is still pervasive in the Colombian countryside. But it rarely affects outsiders anymore.

AV: What were your impressions and thoughts of the statues of La Gaitana and its lost civilization?

JS: They were stunning vestiges of the past, immortalized in stone. They are a testament to Colombia’s rich pre-Hispanic heritage, as well as the country’s very important and populous present-day Indigenous groups (whose land and other human rights are threatened on a daily basis).

AV: It must have been a shock to hear that your guide to La Gaitana, Luis Manuel Salamanca, was murdered one year after your visit.

JS: I received the tragic news the day before I was to defend my senior thesis, the seed manuscript for this book, in front of a panel of professors. Right away I knew that the whole project had changed. We had only spent a few days together, but Salamanca left a deep impression on me. His case was yet another example of how nearly every day in Colombia another “social leader”—environmentalists, human rights defenders, cultural preservationists—is killed by armed groups vying for control of the resource-rich countryside. I was saddened and infuriated.

AV: A man named Salchi runs the boat from Girardot and says, “This river . . . there’s something special about it. It teaches you things, every day it teaches you. Every day the river changes. You can never say you know the Magdalena.” Did you find this to be true and in what ways did the river change and teach you?

JS: Of course, this is where the title of the book comes from. It works on many different levels. There are the physical changes to the river, mostly environmental degradation, which help narrate the course of recent Colombian history. There are changes in the sociopolitical context, mostly with regards to the conflict, which lasted for more than half a century. And then there are the micro-level changes, the personal changes, in the lives of the people I met all along the way. I like the idea that every book written about the same river is likely to be vastly different, because, as the adage goes, you can never step in the same river twice. And as for myself, well, this journey cemented the idea for me (a student at the time) that I wanted to become a nonfiction writer, to tell stories of the world, as a profession. That is a pretty big change.

AV: Alejandra Mayorca accompanied you on the six-hour chalupa boat ride from Barrancabermeja. You also noted that she was carrying a camping tent strapped to her backpack where you said: “This alone made me nervous.” Why?

JS: I was nervous that she thought the boat wouldn’t make it in six hours’ time! We were not planning to camp overnight. But this is a good example of what makes Alejandra someone I, and many readers, have come to deeply admire: she seems unfazed by what the world throws at her. She is strong-willed and takes life day by day. And she is an incredible, captivating storyteller.

AV: Boat captain Alvaro Gulloso says, “This river is dying.” Can anything be done to save it?

JS: In this book I met many people who are working to “save” the river and all of its riches, from endangered/endemic species to age-old traditions and cultures along its banks. In the end, it is these community/environmental leaders everywhere who push our world towards a more sustainable and inclusive future, but only so much can be done locally. As with any natural resource, macro-level change is needed too.

AV: Tell us about Simón Villanueva and his craft of filigree.

JS: Simón Villanueva was an incredible person; when I met him, he had spent seventy-seven of his eighty-nine years on his front stoop in a town called Mompox crafting silver and gold pendants in the ancient style of filigree. He doesn’t have many customers, so the jewels pile up in a glass cabinet beside him, but he keeps going. He “lives in love with his work,” as he put it. Filigree is thought to have originated in India or Mesopotamia, and has followed human migrations as old as time across the world. The art came to Latin America with the Spanish conquests, and in Mompox and a few other places, it has stuck.

It is just one of many examples of the Arab-Spanish blend that is pervasive in the Americas. Simón Villanueva sadly passed away in April 2020. I hope this book helps to honor his memory.

AV: The chapter titled “Biblioburro,” which details the story of Luis Soriano, is pretty amazing. I doubt there is anyone else like him in the world.

JS: Another amazing person, yes. I believe there are a few roving libraries in the world, but I haven’t heard of many others that use donkeys. I was lucky to spend a significant amount of time with Luis Soriano and his students, and I’ve come away extremely inspired by everything he does.

AV: Can you discuss the importance of storytelling, both for the natives and yourself, as you travelled along the Magdalena?

JS: The Magdalena is a river filled with stories in every way. It is marked by folktales and legends all along its banks. The Magdalena was deeply cherished by the great Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez and features prominently (even, I would argue, as a character) in many of his works. And its history in many ways mirrors the history of those who live by its banks. I have always turned to storytelling in order to
understand my own life, so I was very moved to find so many people along the Magdalena who rely on storytelling to make sense of their own lived experiences and histories, too.

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