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

Monday, Mar 18, 2019

By Jamie Saxon, Office of Communications

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.

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.

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