Review: Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena, by Jordan Salama
by Alessandro Romero
Jordan Salama demonstrated that, like gold, stories can be found by looking into a river. After all, his debut book, Every Day the River Changes, ultimately tells a formidable story about other stories. On an adventure down the Magdalena River, Colombia’s most treasured waterway, Salama aims to push back social stigmas that misconstrue the country’s conflicted reputation for drug cartels and guerrilla groups. As he asserts in the opening pages, “No longer is a book on Colombia guaranteed to be all about Pablo Escobar and his narco henchmen.”
In four weeks, he encounters people from diverse walks of life who have long lived and toiled along its banks. They are the various central “characters” of the book, while Salama himself is perhaps a messenger—one who goes the extra mile, or 950, to centralize their voices. Each distinctly piquant, these characters are unapologetically themselves as they strive to live in an ever-shifting country repeatedly misunderstood by the rest of the world. There is a Vietnam veteran from Queens running a failing hotel business, a free-spirited woman who left her job as a physician’s assistant twenty-five years ago in pursuit of a nomadic lifestyle, a teacher who transports books to under-resourced children with his two donkeys, Alfa and Beto, and an anthropologist whose environmental activism risks him his life. At the very core, every story harbors poignant life lessons about resilience and celebration in the face of misfortune. The result is a compendium of Colombian narratives marked by wonder, not war.
The book is divided into three main parts as per the three subdivisions of the Magdalena River, namely the Alto, Medio, and Bajo. Consequently, Salama strings together a linear sequence to guide the reader through a patchwork of scenes, topics, and conversations. Over twelve chapters, the book achieves its paramount function as a travelogue: to make the reader feel as though they are there. That said, the hallmarks of Salama’s prose—his satisfyingly precise descriptions, seamless connections between historical events and modern contexts, and earnest introspection—shape the book, too.
Salama’s journey begins in Puerto Quinchana, a village of just about ninety families nestled high in the Andes Mountains. While there, he speaks with townspeople who teach him about oral histories and indigenous myths associated with the Magdalena. Among them is the legend of Doña Juana, which follows a rebellious girl who drowned in the river’s lagoon in an attempt to flee with her family’s fortune. For the village, the legend serves as a cautionary tale for passersby. He also learns about several drownings that have occurred in recent years, which he determines are “a reminder of what happens when you get too close.” This exchange with Arturo, albeit brief, is significant because it lays the groundwork for the forthcoming chapters. It reveals early on Salama’s cultural competence and motive not only to learn about people’s customs but to honor them as well.
In one story, Salama finds himself—by popular demand—delivering an awkward impromptu performance of Oasis’s song “Wonderwall” at a house gathering with Alvarito, a boat captain whom he befriends while fleeing from wild hippopotamuses. His acquiescence is a testament to his unflinching readiness to spread cheer and connect with those around him. Or perhaps he simply has a knack for coming out of any situation on a major-key note. After, Salama says, “Alvarito showed the grainy video of me singing that song to everyone we met after that, his way of introducing me. ‘My great friend, el boludo Jord!’” All the while, the reader is given an abbreviated, raw portrait of a get-together in rural Colombia where Salama mingles with people that are not at all akin to the austere characters portrayed on Narcos. Rather, he focuses on the ways in which they are like the rest of the world, celebrating some of life’s simplest, most universal pleasures, like food, good company, and karaoke.
In the context of each story, Salama’s feats are truly remarkable. Yet much of his experiences are commonplace in that he interacts with ordinary people and focuses on the nuances of their day-to-day lives. What sets him apart is his social conscience, scrupulous research, and keen sense of self-awareness. Throughout the book, Salama is morally cognizant of his visitor status, never falling into the trap that some travel writers do in othering or exoticizing locals. Salama acknowledges that the majority of Colombian voices will continue to be disenfranchised after he departs. With that, he exhibits accountability and, perhaps, a lack of hubris. A writer’s intent often comes into play when their reader wonders: is this being told chiefly for enjoyment or because it needs to be out in the world? Salama’s is both. Every Day the River Changes amplifies voices that have been muted by the mainstream—the characters, each in their own special manner, possess qualities and perspectives overlooked by the dominant culture, making their stories especially urgent. No two stories are the same, but Salama masterfully links them all—as if arm-in-arm—together in one book, inviting the reader to meet them, too.
Alessandro is a New York native with roots from the Philippines. After earning his undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College, he taught English in a fishing village in northwestern France. He is the recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Colgate University, the Southampton Writers’ Conference and the Unterberg Poetry Center at 92Y. He has a forthcoming feature on Literary Hub and is enrolled in the MFA program at Columbia University.