Jordan Salama standing on a wooden bridge

Salama navigates Colombia’s Magdalena River, one story at a time

For his senior thesis, Jordan Salama is writing about the people and places along Colombia’s main river, the Magdalena. Pictured: Salama stops on a bridge along the Upper Magdalena, in the village of Quinchana, near the river's source in the Andes, during a hike with an archaeologist to see some of the region's famous pre-Columbian monolithic statues.

Senior Jordan Salama’s earliest connection to Colombia came through the piano in his living room in Pelham, New York — 2,500 miles away from the country that would fire his imagination during his time at Princeton.

When Salama was 6 years old, his piano teacher, Sandra Muñoz, a native of Colombia, would play “these rambling, loud, energetic salsas and arabesque music during the breaks between scales and whatever piece I was painstakingly attempting to play. And our piano would come to life,” Salama said.

For his senior thesis, Salama, a Spanish and Portuguese major, is producing a nonfiction book of travel writing about the people and places along Colombia’s main river, the Magdalena. [Editor's update: "Every Day the River Changes," an adapted version of Salama's thesis, will be published by Catapult Books in 2021.]

Salama took his first trip to Colombia for a month-long independent project during the summer after his first year at Princeton, with funding from his department. He stayed with his piano teacher’s grandmother in the city of Cali for the first two weeks, where he translated conservation news bulletins from Spanish into English for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in their Cali office. Each night, over pasta dinners, Salama practiced his conversational Spanish with his 97-year-old host. His project included an excursion to Cotocá Arriba, a village on the shores of the Sinú River, where the WCS was supporting a river turtle conservation project. Villagers trained by WCS biologists searched for turtle nests, collected eggs, incubated them and then released the baby turtles into the river after they were born. Salama’s project concluded with a visit to the remote Darién Gap border region with Panama.

“I was trying to learn about how people relate to their natural environments in different regions of Colombia,” Salama said.

He came back to Princeton with a notebook full of stories about the people he’d met. “Everybody told me there was this place called the Magdalena River that I had to go to,” Salama said. The summer after his junior year he returned to Colombia, with senior thesis funding, to travel the 950 miles of the river — and filled three more notebooks.

Salama is also pursuing certificates in creative writing, environmental studies, journalism and Latin American studies. His senior thesis also satisfies thesis requirements in these areas.

A passion for storytelling and travel runs deep in his family, Salama said.

Growing up, he heard stories about his paternal great-grandfather, who moved from Syria to Argentina in the early 20th century and worked as a traveling salesman on horseback in the Andes. Salama’s mother, Mona Gabbay, a 1988 alumna, shared stories of her native Iraq. “My great great great-grandfather in Baghdad had a caravan of 1,000 camels and traveled the Silk Road,” Salama said.

  • People sitting in long shallow boat

    A group of wildlife biologists and community leaders prepares for a riverboat expedition in Estación Cocorná. 

  • Cows standing along shoreline and in river drinking

    In the 20th century, the vast majority of forested lands along the Magdalena were cleared for grazing and agriculture.

  • Three people standing in field

    Environmental scientists examine a wetland area along the Magdalena.

  • Women showing small turtle to onlookers

    Isabel Romero Gerez, community leader and environmentalist in Estación Cocorná, works with a group of tourists to release turtle hatchlings into a river.

  • Woman standing in river holding up large turtle

    Isabel Romero Gerez lifts a critically endangered Magdalena River Turtle from a pool in her turtle sanctuary in Estación Cocorná.

  • Man walking down dirt alley with string of fish on his back

    A man walks with a freshly caught fish along the jetty of Bocas de Ceniza, where the Magdalena River empties into the Caribbean Sea.

Creating a ‘line of trust’ along the river

As he made his way along the Magdalena, Salama likes to say: “I was traveling by myself but I was never alone.”

He did extensive planning to ensure there was someone meeting him every place he went. Fernando Chaparro, a 1972 graduate alumnus and director of the Society, Knowledge and Innovation Program at the Universidad Central in Bogotá, “connected me with people who then connected me with other people as I went along the river, which created a line of trust,” said Salama.

Salama traveled by bus, riverboat and motobalinera — a wooden contraption fixed with rail wheels, propelled by a motorcycle along train tracks — allowing him to spend time with the people in the towns along the banks of the Magdalena.

“It is Colombia's most important river, culturally and socially, in the diversity of peoples and landscapes it passes through, and economically, in that it provided an early link from the coast to the inland capital,” Salama said. “It was a center for trade and transportation and literally built Colombia from the ground up in the early- to mid-20th century. They call it the ‘Mississippi of Colombia.’”

In Neiva, Salama spent time with Delfín Borrero, who has been building artisanal wooden canoes on the banks of the river for decades. From the isolated village of Estación Cocorná, he went on a riverboat expedition with wildlife biologists who are studying the Magdalena's invasive hippopotamuses (the only members of the species living in the wild outside Africa) and the ecological deterioration of the river.

He visited Simón Villanueva, one of Colombia's oldest silver filigree jewelers, in Mompox. (An essay he wrote about this experience was published in the Harvard Review of Latin America.) He rode two donkeys named Alfa and Beto through pasturelands with Colombia's "Biblioburro," established by Luis Soriano, whose life's work has been to create a traveling library for schoolchildren in rural areas who have limited access to books.

“The people shared with me stories of life in the Magdalena River basin, considered by many to be the heart of Colombia, as the country undergoes a drastic transition from a violent civil war to a time of peace,” Salama said.

The Colombia he got to know is not the Colombia most Americans think about, Salama said.

“I benefited so much in this project from the kindness of people who gave me places to sleep, food, connections. I trusted people and they trusted me. And now all that I want to do is to do them justice in the story, because they're good people,” he said.

Trips to Cuba, Spain and Portugal as part of his Princeton courses also fueled Salama’s penchant for storytelling. Christina Lee, associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese, observed how easily Salama started conversations with strangers, often using soccer as a medium for connection.

“I think that as soon as Jordan enters a new site, he has an almost instinctive need to hear a story that brings that particular space to life,” said Lee, who became Salama’s thesis adviser.

  • Man standing in road

    Rafael Semanate, 90, is one of the oldest residents of Quinchana, the last village before the Magdalena’s source. Each day he walks a mile into town carrying a heavy bucket of plantains from his farm.

  • Jordan Salama standing by boats

    Delfín Borrero has been building artisanal wooden canoes on the banks of the river for decades.

  • Jordan Salama sitting with elderly man in fishing shack

    Ederardo Pérez, known affectionately as Don Pira, is a fisherman living on an isolated patch of riverside land near where the Magdalena hippopotamuses reside. Don Pira has had many unwanted encounters with the hippos over the years.

  • Two men flying kites on hill top

    Diego and Daniel fly kites in the late afternoon when the wind picks up on a hillside outside of Estación Cocorná.

  • Two men flying kites on hill top

    From down below, the group on the hillside directs their colorful kites in the distance along wisps of string.

  • Man sitting at desk

    Oscar Castilla, general manager of the Hotel Pipatón, one of the oldest and most celebrated hotels along the Magdalena, sits at his desk two days before the hotel closed its doors for good.

  • Woman sitting in rocking chair in front of green doors

    Faice Jalilie de Gutierrez de Piñeres, 86, is the daughter of Christian Palestinian and Lebanese immigrants to Colombia. She married into the noble Gutierrez de Piñeres family of marquises in Mompox, and lives in the town’s grandest home overlooking the river.

  • Woman sitting in fabric shop

    Faride Jalilie de Dau, 94, Faice’s sister, owns one of the last operating Middle Eastern textile shops in Mompox.

  • Elderly man smiling at camera

    Simón Villanueva is the master filigree jeweler of Mompox.

  • Close up of man's hands working with filigree tool

    Simón Villanueva twirls fine strands of silver wire to form the petals of a flower.

  • Miniature straw hat in palm of elderly man's hand

    A silver filigree “sombrero vueltiao” — the signature cowboy hat of Colombia — is the handiwork of Simón Villanueva.

  • Man reading book in front of burro and three children

    Luis Soriano, widely known as “Biblioburro” — for the traveling library he has created for schoolchildren in rural areas who have limited access to books — reads a book to a group of schoolchildren at their farmhouse with his donkey, Beto.

  • Man riding burro across field

    Luis Soriano, the Biblioburro, rides his donkey, Beto, across the pasturelands of the Magdalena Department in northern Colombia.

Finding his voice

Salama has taken nearly a dozen creative writing and journalism classes at Princeton. Two classes in particular sharpened his writing skills for his senior thesis.

As a sophomore, Salama took fiction writing with Joyce Carol Oates, the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, and professor of creative writing, emeritus. He said the course was “fantastic” but discovered he “felt uncomfortable having to make things up about what I saw [in Colombia], because what I found was so interesting — the people I met, the things I heard.”

The next semester, in John McPhee’s creative nonfiction course, Salama discovered a genre he had never heard of. “I wanted to be able to tell a true story,” Salama said. “And that's precisely what Professor McPhee’s class did for me.”

McPhee, a Ferris Professor of Journalism and contributing writer to The New Yorker for over 50 years, has been teaching his legendary course at Princeton each spring for 40 years. Salama found in McPhee a mentor and fellow enthusiast of nature.

“In my course, Jordan's performance was consistently on the highest level,” McPhee said. “This level included not only writing ability, promptness and care, but also imagination in thinking up his free-choice projects.”

As an example, McPhee recounted the time Salama took a fishing rod down to Lake Carnegie: “He’s a reporter with a prop. He goes along the towpath, encountering fishermen and interviewing them. And who does he find there but a guy — a voluble, interesting, quotable guy — who was once a prizefighter and fought George Foreman in the ring and sparred with Muhammad Ali!”

McPhee later read Salama’s junior paper — in which Salama retraced his great-grandfather’s route along the Andes — calling it “as outstanding as all his other work. This is a born journalist.”

  • Men with dump truck standing in river

    A common sight along the length of the river, men begin before dawn each day to harvest sediment from the bed and banks of the Magdalena to sell to cement factories.

  • Men on dump truck in river

    The “Magdalena sand men” at work.

  • Men putting silt from river into dump truck

    The presence of so much sand and sediment has, in recent decades, made the Magdalena River impossible to navigate by large steamboats.

  • Barge filled with cars, trucks and people going across river

    A flat “planchón” ferries truckloads of cattle and oil palm fruit across the Magdalena near Barrancabermeja.

A river runs through it: Shaping the story

Salama’s advisers guided him during the writing process. Lee commended Salama’s ability to capture details and encouraged him to shape them into a unifying theme.

“That has been the single greatest challenge with my thesis,” Salama said. “Yes, there is one river that unifies all these places, but it can't just be the river. The river has to be supplemented to give it greater meaning.”

Poring over a two-volume book of travelogues about the Magdalena, Salama observed that other writers, traveling in earlier eras by steamboat, “treated the river as nothing more than a highway,” he said. “They passed by all these places but don't talk about what's going on along the way.”

He noted that, over time, as prospectors consumed the wood in the forests to build steamboats and stripped the land for pastures and agriculture, the lack of roots could no longer hold back the land from sliding into the river, causing it to become wider and shallower — and no longer navigable by steamboat.

As he made his way along Colombia’s Magdalena River, Salama traveled by bus, riverboat and motobalinera — a wooden contraption fixed with rail wheels, propelled by a motorcycle along train tracks — allowing him to spend time with the people in towns and villages.

Salama’s own journey took him constantly on and off the river. “That's what brings the story together,” he said. “It's not the river; it's the people who live along the river and their stories.”

“One challenge we've been working on is moving away from the seemingly objective lens of a news journalist to the more soulful vantage point of a writer who is contemplating a place through his interactions with its people,” said Daphne Kalotay, Salama’s second thesis adviser, and a lecturer in creative writing and the Lewis Center for the Arts. “In other words, not being afraid to include more of himself in the picture he's painting.”

Kalotay said she is impressed by “the sheer scope of this project, telling the history of a country through the story of a river by following a physical path that is in fact ecological, political, cultural, sociological — one that moves from village elders to new migrants from Venezuela.”

Stay tuned

Salama will have the opportunity to merge his love of storytelling, television and Latin American culture after graduation. A recipient of a ReachOut fellowship, he will travel next year throughout the United States, Canada and Latin America to create an online children's video series, “Lulus America,” in conjunction with Sesame Workshop.

Salama gained experience in television at Princeton — through an internship at CBS’ “60 Minutes” and by co-creating “Princeton Tonight,” the University’s broadcast television show and entertainment organization. Ever the storyteller, Salama said one of his “defining moments at Princeton” happened in fall 2017, when he found himself giving Art Garfunkel an informal tour of campus, an hour before his “Princeton Tonight” appearance.

When they entered the Princeton University Chapel, Garfunkel started singing “The Boxer” loudly. A janitor tapped Garfunkel on the shoulder.

“I thought he was going to ask for an autograph or a photo,” Salama said, “but he said, ‘Community members can only sing on Wednesdays.’”

Magdalena river in Columbia

The Magdalena River flows through the lush hills of the Colombian Massif, near its headwaters.