Every Day the River Changes, by Jordan Salama

This Thanksgiving weekend, I went to South America…via Every Day the River Changes, by Jordan Salama. Books are the perfect way to travel. Salama braved the heat, the bugs, the humidity, and the aggravation of ahorita (which can mean anything from right now to hours later to “you just missed it). In this travelogue, Salama takes us on an abbreviated trip down the Magdalena River, from the Colombian Massif to Barranquilla, where the river empties into the Caribbean.

On the almost 1,000 mile journey by surely every type of ground transportation Colombia offers, Salama touches on twentieth and twenty-first-century history, erosion, archaeology, Pablo Escobar’s hippos, economic depression, syncretic music, the lost glory days of river travel, and so many more topics. It’s a wonder he packed all that into not much more than 200 pages. In fact, I wish Salama had lingered a little more at his various stops along the Magdalena. For example, Salama often talks about incidents during the decades-long conflict between the Colombian government and revolutionary/insurgent groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but never really goes into how La Violencia started or was resolved.

Salama is at his best when he talks about the dwindling biodiversity of Colombia’s exploited countryside and its effects on the Magdalena River. In its nineteenth and early-twentieth-century heyday, steamboats would travel up and down the river for hundreds of miles. But due to changing economic demands and La Violencia, the forests alongside the river were cut down. Erosion followed, silting up the river so much that the steamboats and larger vessels couldn’t travel far enough to make trips worth the captains’ wile. Fishermen saw their catches get smaller and smaller, both in quantity and in the size of the fish. Garbage travels with currents until it’s spat out into the Caribbean Sea at Barranquilla.

During a moment of reflection while traveling on the river itself (instead of alongside it), Salama writes:

Sunset on the Madgalena near Barrancabermeja (Image via Wikicommons)

The eerie sound of the sand making its presence known brough about these stories of glory and decline, which I’d read with great nostalgia before setting off on my journey. I envied those travelers who wrong of the Madgalena’s golden dawns on steamboat mornings, of the cacophony of monkeys and insects in its trees and the cries of manatees in its waters, because these were things I knew I would never see. In a life marked by news of slaughtered wildernesses and vanishing species and doomed by impending climate catastrophes, I envied them just as I have long envied those lucky enough, in a world before mine, to experience the majesty of nature without feeling the crushing weight of so much loss.

Every Day the River Changes, Chapter 4, Advanced Reader Copy

Unlike Dominic Ziegler’s Black Dragon River (about the Amur River) and other nonfiction books about places I’ve read that tend to focus on histories and peoples, Salama constantly reminds us readers of the river’s condition. Sure, Salama talks to all kinds of people who live along the river—from academics and conservationists to ferry- and fishermen—but his conversations are always about how the river has changed and how it will continue to decline in the near future unless there are major, systemic changes. This focus on the present, plus Salama’s fascination with the river and his sorrow about missing the glory days of the river, serve as a call to arms about what we, humanity, are losing when we actively destroy the landscapes and ecosystems around us. It will cost a lot in terms of money, effort, and time, but places like the Magdalena aren’t irrevocably lost if we act now. If we save the river and its ecosystem, maybe we, too, can travel up the once-mighty river in a steamboat.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.