A Geography of Hope: Gabriel García Márquez and the River that Made Possible a Nation

Making offerings to the river, at Bocas de Ceniza (Photo courtesy of Wade Davis)
Wade Davis

Wade Davis is a writer, botanist, and ethnographer who holds a Ph.D. in ethnobotany from Harvard University. As an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, his work has taken him from Australia to Tibet.

Davis’ new book, Madgalena: River of Dreams, tells the story of Colombia’s Magdalena River, which spans nearly a thousand miles from the mountain uplands of the Macizo Colombiano to the alluring Caribbean wetlands around the port of Barranquilla. Home to Colombia’s life-giving biodiversity, the Magdalena has also served as the graveyard of the nation, a slurry of the shapeless dead, victims of a war fueled exclusively by the global demand for cocaine.

In weaving together memoir and history to tell the story of the Magdalena — and of the man who documented it so deeply, the writer Gabriel García Márquez — Davis masterfully tells the story of Colombia itself. Magadelena: River of Dreams is as much a fierce defense of Indigenous wisdom and a searing indictment of climate change as it is a memoir of an author’s travels and friendships. Check out the following excerpt from the book, and get your own copy here!

Gabriel García Márquez

What is life but a story we lose the power of comprehending as we grow old? In his last years, long after his Colombia had itself become but an illusion of memory, Gabriel García Márquez declared the Río Magdalena to be dead, its waters poisoned, its animals exterminated, its forests destroyed. In the first volume of his memoirs, Vivir para contarla, he scoffed at the idea that its scorched and barren riverbanks might ever again be lush with jungles saturated with the scent of blossoms and alive with the sounds of monkeys, jaguars, and macaws, as they had been in his youth. To replace what had been lost would require, he claimed with curious precision, the planting of “fifty-nine thousand, one hundred and ten million trees” on properties that were now privately owned, removing arable land from production and reducing income for landowners by 90 per- cent. The river itself was beyond redemption, with water unsafe to drink and fish too soiled to eat, all rendered toxic by raw sewage and industrial waste disgorged into its ow by every town and city in the drainage. García Márquez went on, sharing an anecdote of two guerrillas who, fleeing the army, flung themselves into the river only to die, infected by its waters. He recalls that the only person with a serious plan to rehabilitate the Magdalena, a young engineer from Antioquia by the name of Jairo Murillo, had himself died in the river, drowning along with his dreams. Coming from a national treasure, a Noble laureate who upon his death in April 2014 would be declared by then-president Juan Manuel Santos as “the greatest Colombian who ever lived,” this was a powerful indictment, a statement of despair that fell somewhere between bitterness and the truth.

Few Colombians, and certainly no Colombian writer, have been as closely associated with the Río Magdalena as Gabriel García Márquez. The river was not just the setting but an actual character in two of his greatest novels, Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in His Labyrinth, books that are completely inspired by the author’s passion for the Magdalena. All of the themes that informed his work—forgetfulness and love, violence and hope, progress and decadence, fertility and death—are to be found in the eddies and back channels and currents of a river that literally carried him, as a boy, to his destiny, allowing him to enter a world of language and literature where he would discover just what words can do.

There is scarcely an image or a phrase in Love in the Time of Cholera that does not correspond to an actual episode in García Márquez’s life. When he portrays, for example, Florentino’s journeys on the Magdalena, the first to heal a broken heart, the second in pursuit of pure love, he is writing of riverboats he knew so well as a youth, magnificent three-story vapores with soaring black chimneys, passing in the night like brightly lit carnival tents, trailing in their wake music and poetry and phosphorescent dreams. Along the shores, he recalls, sand beaches were dark with caimans lounging in the sun, their jaws wide open, filled with small clouds of butterflies. Flocks of herons in the sloughs, flights of egrets scraping the sky, and in the shallows along the shore, and in the Cienega’s, manatees suckling their young, their skin pale and soft like that of a woman.

On board, the third-class passengers swung in hammocks hung from the rafters of the lower deck, while the gente bien paced the perimeter of the upper decks, watching life and the river flow by. Men wore cotton or linen, suits tailored for the tropics. Women dressed as they would for a transatlantic crossing, with sufficient outfits to allow them to change several times a day, along with extravagant hats adorned with flowers, silk gloves, fans, and umbrellas for the sun. Each man carried aboard a small leather case containing grooming essentials: hair tonic, cologne, and scented powders. Women brought their own feather pillows and linen sheets, along with several pairs of white shoes, all oversized, for a lady’s feet were certain to swell in tierra caliente. The steamboat captains, as García Márquez wrote, were larger than life, firm and steady, impeccably dressed, with the strength of roots and a pronounced weakness for wildlife. They towered over the vessel, just as the giant ceibas rose above the riverbanks, the one forest tree, sacred to all the ancestors, that never fell to the woodsman’s ax.

Crossing the Macizo Colombiano (Photo courtesy of Wade Davis)

On the river, everything receded in time and space, with memory itself being forgotten. The slow, languid days seemed to last longer with each passing mile. The length of the journey was itself never certain, dependent always on the river, its depth and current, the shifting sands and sediments, the turning of the seasons. If a vessel ran aground and the journey was delayed, it caused no alarm, for no one expected punctuality, and with each day the passengers grew as a family, causing the music and dancing that followed every captain’s dinner to reach ever deeper into the night.

From time to time, the vessel came to shore to purchase bur­ros de leña, fuel for the boilers, or to offload cargo onto mules for the long ascent to the cities and towns of the cordilleras. There was always a sense on board that anything could happen, that life- changing encounters were to be expected, that all was possible. García Márquez writes of a medical student who at a random stop entered a wedding party uninvited, flirted with the most beautiful woman, and ended up being shot by her jealous husband. He also recalls another passenger who, after a wild night in Puerto Berrío, woke to discover that in his drunkenness he had gotten married. He and his wife would have nine children and live happily ever after. He tells, too, of a woman who carried her baby about the ship in a wooden birdcage, hanging it from the open deck, and of another great beauty who used fire flies as accessories, creating broaches and decorating her hair with the glowing creatures.

Altogether, García Márquez would embark on eleven round-trip journeys on the Magdalena, traveling back and forth from his home on the coast to school in the capital, always convinced that he learned more in his few days on the river than in his many months in the classroom. His very first trip in 1943, when he was but sixteen, was perhaps the most memorable for it was on the David Arango, the most elegant of all vessels ever to travel the river—the Titanic, many would say, of the Magdalena. As an orchestra welcomed the passengers and the ship made ready to sail, García Márquez rushed to the highest deck and watched as the lights of the town of Magangué slowly receded in the darkness. Tears filled his eyes, and he remained, as he later recalled, in a state of ecstasy throughout the entire night and, indeed, the entire journey. It took six days to reach Puerto Salgar, where he caught the train for Bogotá. A boy from the coast who had never stood higher than the hood of a truck found himself climbing into the Andes, whistling and wheezing like a struggling arriero gasping for air.

Bogotá came as a shock, with its cold and wet chill, the men all dressed in black trudging to their places of work and no sign of a woman in the streets, no laughter, no joy, no color. Nothing to dazzle his gypsy eyes. A grey city of solitude and despair. Within hours, he longed for heat and home. He counted the days and weeks as the calendar turned toward December. In his yearning, the Magdalena became the antidote to Bogotá, his lifeline to the coast, where everything was awash in color and passion, where flirtations with parrots and sunbirds were the norm and daily life, as he would later write, was but a pretense for poetry.

He had been raised by his grandparents in a world of multiple realities, not unlike the country itself, a nation that he would embody as a writer and a man. His grandfather, a veteran of the War of a Thousand Days, never escaped his memories of re, obsessions that over time enveloped their home in a shroud of gloom, leaving García Márquez haunted by the specter of death for all of his life. His grandmother, by contrast, lived in a realm of the imagination where everything was possible, where common garden frogs were brujas by night, river stones the eggs of dinosaurs, and plants only people in another dimension of reality. Fantasy and the supernatural were but glimmers of liminal space where heaven and earth converged to reveal glimpses of the divine.

García Márquez had a way of being present at those moments when Colombia cleaved from its past. In 1928, when field hands went on strike and bananas rotted on the stem, agents of the United Fruit Company in the guise of soldiers slaughtered their families with machine guns, leaving the plaza of Ciénaga blanketed with the dead, corpses that were cast into the sea. The survivors fled south only to be murdered in the Aracataca graveyard before the eyes of a desperate priest. As an infant, García Márquez rested in his cradle within earshot of the massacre. Years later, he was living as a student in a Bogotá boarding house just blocks from the Black Cat Café, where Jorge Gaitán was murdered. García Márquez watched as workers poured into the streets and the capital burned. He was there as the army turned its tanks on the people and a terrible violence was born that would leave generations of Colombians looking over their shoulders in fear, waiting for the moment when death would find them. Like all of his generation, he came of age in a land where death was not a distant fate but a burden to be borne in every moment of life, a threat as constant as the night.

García Márquez grew to view death as a swindle, a cosmic trap, the ultimate betrayal. “Not dying,” he declared, “is the only option I accept.” And yet he would live to see too much of death, even as Florentino, on his last journey, comes upon three corpses floating in the river, green and bloated, with vultures perched on top. By then the forests were gone, along with the animals and birds. The Magdalena had become a cemetery, leaving the river, his Magdalena, as he wrote, but an illusion of memory. His deepest fears were confirmed not long after he abandoned Colombia for a life in Mexico, when a phone call from Bogotá confirmed that the David Arango, docked in Magangué, had been destroyed by fire, reduced to ash by a conflagration that marked for him not just the end of an era of travel but the final death of innocence. “That day,” he later wrote, “ended my youth and what was barely left of our river of nostalgia was now a total mess.”

A shamanic figure carved into stone, overlooking the Magdalena gorge at La Chaquira, San Agustín (Photo courtesy of Wade Davis)

What in fact had died was just one man’s story, one thin chapter of a chronicle of a river that has owed for three million years and touched the lives of countless people. García Márquez once said, “The only reason I would like to be young again would be the chance to travel again on a freighter going up the Magdalena.” His life was bookended by his first journey on the river in 1943 and the news that the vessel that had carried him on that journey had been lost to re in 1961, a span of less than two decades in which the Río Magdalena, according to García Márquez, had been transformed from paradise to wasteland, heaven to hell. To be sure, those years brought ecological devastation. But forests can grow back and animals be reclaimed, even from the abyss of extinction. All that has been irrevocably lost is one man’s passionate identification with a moment in time, a trivial instant impossible even to record in the life of a river. The robber of memories is surely the one trapped in nostalgia who would deny to those coming in his wake the chance to celebrate a river that still lives, owing to the sea and bringing the promise of life to the land as it always has. In truth, the Río Magdalena remains an open book, one with countless pages and chapters yet to be written. Like the families condemned to live one hundred years of solitude, it too deserves to have, at last and forever, a second chance on earth.

This excerpt was from Magadelena: River of Dreams by Wade Davis. Get your own copy here!

To hear more from Wade Davis, please explore the variety of media produced from his appearances at the Bioneers Conference over the years

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