National Geographic staff writer Jordan Salama joins Zibby to talk about his first book, Every Day The River Changes, which he originally started writing during his first trip to Colombia in 2016. The two discuss some of Jordan’s most recent and popular stories for Nat Geo and the New York Times, what he learned from travel writing during the Covid lockdown, and how he hopes this book will challenge readers to reconsider stereotypes about other countries and their people. Jordan also shares how he feels about his book being selected as the Class of 2026 Pre-read book at his alma mater, Princeton, and where he hopes his career will eventually lead him.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jordan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” It’s so fun to have you.

Jordan Salama: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: I am so impressed with you for so many reasons. I know you and I connected a year ago at this point.

Jordan: Something like that.

Zibby: It was so long ago. Not only was your book beautifully written and amazing, I learned so much that I didn’t know about the whole region. It was amazing. Your National Geographic articles are so awesome. I feel like you are going to win every big award in the journalism space, travelogue, everything.

Jordan: I don’t know about that.

Zibby: In the author stock market, I would go long on your stock.

Jordan: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Zibby: Let’s start a little bit with the book. Tell listeners about how it came out of how — start with the first trip from Princeton when you went down there and then when you went back and how it became a book on the Magdalena River and just the whole thing.

Jordan: Definitely. This book started out as my college thesis and then was expanded and adapted to become what it is today, Every Day the River Changes. The idea was planted when I had a chance to go to Colombia for the first time in 2016. I was a freshman in college. I’d never traveled alone by myself before to another country. Of course, Colombia as a country, in the United States, conjures up these preconceptions, preconceived notions of violence, of war. Everybody was terrified for me. Everybody thought that I was going to, basically, get kidnapped or killed going to Colombia. It was pre-peace deal. Everybody I told about this had some kind of negative reaction except for one person. This was my childhood piano teacher who then had become a family friend. I’ve long stopped taking piano lessons. She said to me, “Oh, my god, this is amazing. You can stay with my grandmother. She’ll take care of you.” I’m thinking this young, spritely grandmother who’s happy to have me there. Love this woman. She was a wonderful, wonderful person. She was ninety-six years old, bedridden. She had an aide in the house. The only thing that she had control over me was that she would lock the door with a key at seven PM and not let me leave after the sun went down because this was her way of keeping me safe.

What happened, that meant that I was — I had nothing to do. I didn’t bring a phone in 2016 to Colombia because people told me people would steal my phone. This all, again, tells you how overblown these things are. Of course, when thinking about traveling and security and everything, there’s always a measured approach that should be done. I went kind of blind and taking people’s a bit crazy advice. I didn’t bring a phone. I didn’t have a computer. I didn’t have internet. I just had my notebook and a pen. I started writing down the things that happened to me during the days when I was out and about traveling around the country or in the city of Cali, where she lived. It turned out that those notes actually really helped me when it came time for me to pick an idea for my senior thesis, to write this long project. Everybody I met talked about the Magdalena River as this magical place to understand Colombia. Of course, as somebody who just came from this experience of misunderstanding of Colombia, I wanted to understand this vastly diverse and beautiful country that I came to be very interested in. I decided to go back and travel the entire length of this river from source to sea and live with the people who live along its banks. That’s the book, Every Day the River Changes.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Now I guess it’s being assigned to everybody at Princeton this year.

Jordan: That’s an amazing development. I couldn’t believe it when it happened. Basically, they have this thing called the pre-read. It’s kind of like a book club for all the incoming undergraduates to come. Usually, they pick books by famous people or important people or books that are in the national conversation. I’m not that. I’m twenty-five. This came as a shock. I think what they were interested in is that this book tells the story of a young person’s journey down a river, not just a journey down a river physically, but also figuratively in the sense of an academic development from start to finish, how a project comes together like this. I’m going to be in Princeton for a little while this fall talking with students about the book. I’m really excited because it’s just going to be a wonderful opportunity. That’s where the book was born, so it’s cool to be able to go back.

Zibby: That is amazing. I read that you handwrote all of these — obviously, you didn’t have your computer there, so you had to literally have scraps — and that you always do that for all of your projects. You handwrite everything even when you do have access to all of that equipment.

Jordan: Yeah, it’s one of the ways that I work. It’s, maybe, a weird thing. I try to write, definitely, all of my notes by hand. Then a lot of the drafts of stuff, I write by hand too. My college roommates, for example, will remember that I was writing my thesis on scraps of old paper, on the back of just random pieces of paper. I don’t know if I still have them. I should probably look. That was the beginnings of this book, which is kind of crazy.

Zibby: You should do one of those Shutterfly albums or something with pictures of all of the things next to the pictures that you have of the region.

Jordan: That’s such a good idea, or even pictures of the writing with the pictures of the book to show the differences between the paragraphs and things like that.

Zibby: That too.

Jordan: I wonder how much has carried over.

Zibby: It’s almost like a behind-the-scenes. Actually, you could do a whole thing on the process, just the writing process in general.

Jordan: That’s a good TikTok. I’ve now gotten into TikTok, apparently, as everybody my age has to. I’m trying to figure out how to find an audience on TikTok. It’s been interesting, to say the least.

Zibby: You’re really good. I was analyzing your Instagram feed. I was like, this is great. You have quotes from your book that you’ve written, quotes from articles you’ve written. Then you have reels. You have the reel about Princeton. I have a really hard time with reels. I know I have to get better at reels and everything. It’s a great mix. You engage the reader. You give just enough of a preview of some of the characters you meet along the way so that it almost feels like you’re reading a book when you’re on your account versus just self-promotional whatever. You get something from it. You learn from it.

Jordan: The goal of that or the idea behind that is that this is, at its heart, a book about a river in a country that a lot of people don’t know about. That’s been the challenge here, is how to get people excited about a book that takes place in a place that maybe they didn’t realize they were interested in. Once they start reading the book, they realize it’s so much more than an analysis of an “obscure” place. It is a book about humanity and people who live in certain kinds of worlds and communities and are working really hard to bring those communities out of conflict or strife or whatever. I think a lot of parallels can be drawn to life here because it is a book about the universal human experience though it takes place in, maybe, a place that’s far off in our imaginations. What I wanted to do with those kinds of posts and continue to do with all the stories that I write is show those human characters and then hope that people will take something away from it and connect with the people who I connected with because I, at the end of the day, am that bridge between the reader and the place that they don’t really have any experience with. In reality, that was my own journey too. I didn’t have any experience with this place. I came, over a lot of time, to have an experience of this place. Now I want to share that with people.

Zibby: Now you’ve learned how to do it, so you can replicate the model. Now you’re taking trains across the entire country and doing the same thing internally, which is fascinating. I can just see you. It’s almost like you’re unspooling these mats and then scampering ahead to meet all the people and then rolling out another mat and then meeting the people.

Jordan: I like that metaphor. There’s a lot of mats to unspool in my life because I, first of all, come from this family that — I was born and raised in the New York suburbs, which is boring, if you think about it, but my family comes from all over the world. My dad’s family are Syrian Jews who went to Argentina and then came to the United States. My mom was born in Baghdad and escaped persecution when she was seven years old, came to Long Island. I grew up in this world in New York of languages and histories and these weird and obscure traditions. I started asking questions about them as I got older. Now if you look at the kinds of things that I write, both the book and in my pieces for National Geographic and at The New York Times and other outlets, you can kind of look back into my own history, my own life, and say, oh, that’s why he’s interested in that. That makes sense. Why am I interested in trade routes? Because I had a great-great-great-grandfather who was on the Silk Road with a caravan of a thousand camels. My grandma used to tell me stories about it when I was a kid. I’m really interested in the Silk Road. I’m interested in traveling salespeople, things like that, journeys that connect disparate places and peoples and cultures. It all has a source. I’m just picking the different threads now. I think for my whole life, I’m just going to be unspooling those different mats or yarns or whatever you want to call it.

Zibby: I loved your description of the Biblioburro in Colombia. Tell me more about that.

Jordan: The Biblioburro is a schoolteacher named Luis Soriano who started, about twenty years ago, maybe twenty-five years ago now, actually — it’s been a long time — delivering books on a donkey to his students who live in rural areas and don’t have access to libraries of their own and can’t read at their own houses. He learned when he was young teacher just starting out that the reason why his students weren’t progressing in reading was because they didn’t have the chance to practice at home because they didn’t have books in their houses. They also didn’t have places to go nearby because they had to walk really far to get to the school where the books were. He decided he was going to bring the books to them. Because it’s such a rural, hard-to-get-to area, he travels with these two donkeys, Alfa and Beto, for alfabeto, and goes through the countryside with these books on these donkeys. It’s this magical realism, real-life story of this, literally, superhero who has lifted up a whole community with literacy and stories. He’s just an amazing person.

Zibby: Wow, it’s so wild. I feel like you did a lot to dispel the common misperceptions, some accurate, some completely inaccurate, about Colombia and how it’s all drug cartels and cocaine. One of your scenes in the beginning is wondering what the fishing boats were and then hearing all these stories about potential executions coming and what the boats do and how they’re really ferrying cocaine in the middle of the night and all of these things. Yet as you go through the country and meet all these people, you’re like, well, this is not so bad. Tell me about what it’s like for the people. When you have this — not misguided, but when one thing about a country is so magnified, how do you then get rid of that, discard that, and peel the onion, if you will, and find the people and the real stories? What do they think about — when I was a teenager and I went to France, everybody was like, oh, you’re an American. That means you wear a fanny pack and jeans. I’m like, I don’t wear a fanny pack. I’m not a terrible American. I’m amazing. Tell me a little bit about that and these cultural stereotypes.

Jordan: Every country has cultural stereotypes that it suffers from. Colombia is no exception. Narcos alone, just that show on Netflix has dispelled so many negative perceptions about this place. It would be naïve to say that this is a country without problems. This is a perfect place. It’s so safe. It’s a fantastic paradise. No, that’s not the case at all. It’s also not a completely blood-ridden disaster for every single person who goes there or lives there. Obviously, the truth is, as always, somewhere in the middle. What this book tries to do is not only give the perspective of the outside traveler, me. I was very cautious about the way I was going about this trip. I didn’t feel unsafe at all during the time I was traveling down the river. Also, digging deep into the life experiences of people who actually live there and go through life in these places day to day, in those cases, sometimes it’s all fine. Sometimes, as in the case with this one anthropologist who I went into the Andes with, it could be deadly, very deadly. His name was Luis Manuel Salamanca. He was murdered a year after I met him. There’s a perfect example of how you know that this kind of specter of war and post-conflict trauma and violence and continuing challenge to fix security issues in a very complicated place were definitely surrounding me. I was finding out about those things, in some ways, the hard way. By no means is it a one-sided or a universal situation in any of these cases. It’s just different for everybody. That’s what I tried to show in this book through anecdotes and lived experiences of regular people.

Zibby: I also love how you write about traveling alone is, in part — not necessarily completely alone. Traveling into these new places and new territories is also this way of connection for you. You talked about the pandemic and the isolation of that and wanting to connect and yet being able to do so with complete strangers and how that in and of itself is transformative.

Jordan: It’s interesting because I think now, if it would’ve been possible for me to do this in the pandemic, something like this in the pandemic, and I still don’t think so — I was staying in people’s houses. I don’t know how I would feel about it. I don’t know how they would feel about it. I haven’t done a long journey like this since the pandemic started. It’s something we’ll see. In general, I think that when doing these reporting trips, traveling alone, for me, is the most social thing possible. When you travel with one other person or two other people or whatever, however many other people, you’re so wrapped up in the dynamic of the group that you don’t have an outward look to the place or the people where you’re traveling. For a journalist or a reporter, it’s so important to have that self-awareness, that awareness of the place and what’s going on there and the context that traveling with other people just wouldn’t work. A lot of that just comes from the conversations you have. It’s easier to approach people if you’re by yourself. A lot of people actually want to help you when you’re by yourself, which opens up other kinds of conversations as well.

Zibby: Interesting. How do you take that curiosity and open the door to run out and get lunch or something? When you’re in your day-to-day life, how often are you putting on that reporter/journalist hat and wondering about people and dipping into their stories? Are you the type of person who finds out everything about the guy behind the counter at the local deli?

Jordan: Yes, too much. My family and friends will tell you too much. Every time I go anywhere and someone says something that is slightly interesting to me, everything else goes away, and I have to ask questions and learn more. One example of this is that there’s an Iraqi café restaurant in Yonkers near where I grew up. For a long time, there was this man who would sit in the corner booth just having tea. After a while, I just really, really, really wanted to talk to him, and so we struck up conversations. I wrote about this in The New York Times. It was a friendship that spanned generations. It became this really beautiful thing. I went up to him. He didn’t want to be bothered, I don’t think, by me in the first — I don’t know. I never asked him. I like to say — with the pandemic, this is definitely the case. Travel writing doesn’t have to be something that you do far away. You can do it wherever you live. You don’t have to even write about it. You can embody this spirit in your everyday life by learning about the people who live in your neighborhood or in a neighborhood near you or in a city near you, especially in a place like New York. My god, this city is gigantic. You have worlds and worlds and worlds in one place. It’s amazing. You could just do these kinds of stories nearby. In fact, when I couldn’t travel because of the pandemic, I started doing a lot of work in Queens. Instead of using a river in a country as a connecting thread, I used a street, Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights. For a summer, I just walked up and down Roosevelt Avenue and talked to the people who live and work along this amazingly diverse, linguistically diverse street and wrote this piece. If you look at it, it’s kind of a micro version of Every Day the River Changes. It’s a short digital article on National Geographic and tries to tell the story of a place through this one connecting thread. You do it whatever you are. I don’t even necessarily think you have to travel for it.

Zibby: What are you finding? You’ve talked to more people from so many different backgrounds and places. You just love story. Of course, we all are drawn to story. We want to know. I could read a memoir every single day. Yours is a collection. It’s shining the light on lots of people all over the place. What are you finding about people in general? I know that’s such a sweeping question. Are you bowled over by kindness? Are you finding that people are more different than we all think? Are you finding that, at the base of it, we’re all just so alike? What is your general thesis now of people?

Jordan: First of all, one thing just to note about the book is that it is the kind of book where you can pick it up, read a chapter, put it down, and then leave it months, even, if you wanted to and then pick it up, start right where you left off. You don’t have to read it in order, I don’t think, though it’s better if you read it in order. What did I take away about people? I’m going to steal from the Biblioburro, actually, this quote from Luis Soriano, something he told me once, which is that the world is made of good people. I think that so often in this time now where everything seems so bleak and awful and just bad news after bad news after bad news, it’s easy to think that all these bad people are everywhere. The truth is that the vast majority of people are kind and nice and will take you in and will be hospitable and will be friends. That is not mutually exclusive with the fact that we are all different and all have different stories and that that should be celebrated.

Zibby: I like to believe most people are kind and good.

Jordan: I think so. I think that when it seems like ordinary people are not kind and good at heart, it’s because they’re misguided in some way by somebody else who has power over them and does not have good intentions.

Zibby: Or mental illness or they’ve had so much bad stuff happen to them. I feel like people who have had all this abuse — some people are fine. They still overcome it. It seems hard to overcome some things, but maybe not all things. I don’t know. This is obviously way too generalization. What is your ultimate goal? Is it a Pulitzer Prize? Is it to go to every corner of the earth? What gets you super excited, and in the long, long term, thirty years from now?

Jordan: People have been asking this question a lot recently.

Zibby: Sorry, I hate asking questions people ask a lot, but I’m curious.

Jordan: No, no, no, not interviews. I mean friends. Just generally in life, people have been like, do you have something you’re working towards? The truth is — maybe this sounds not good to say. I just want to kind of keep doing what I’m doing now. If I could find a way to do this where I can live well from it, which is the biggest challenge for any writer, I will do it for as long as I can find these stories and share them with the world. I have certain grand plans that are in the short term. I want to go to Iraq where my mom was born. I want to be the first person in my family to go back after they left fifty years ago, things like that. Those are individual ideas of stories or even books or whatever. I have those ideas. I don’t know. If you come look for me in thirty years and I’m still writing these kind of books and articles, then I’ll be a happy guy.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I love that. Aside from Iraq, next destinations on your wish list?

Jordan: My brother’s actually going to Peru this summer. He’s doing something in kind of a similar way now. He’s in college. He has a chance to do a research project abroad. I’m excited for him. He’s piqued my interest in Peru. Also, I want to explore more of the United States. That train journey which I just wrote about and an article came out this week for Nat Geo, “Finding Peace on a 72-Hour Train Across America” was great. I looked out the window, and so much of it was like, oh, I want to get off here. I want to talk to people in this town. Maybe something across the United States is next.

Zibby: I wonder if you shouldn’t team up with amazing documentary film people, somebody like Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi, so that people who are not — maybe people could get to know you that way. Maybe that would be a way in to all of your stories.

Jordan: If anybody’s listening to this and wants — this is the thing. I do want to go bigger with my stories. That is a goal that I have. I’m realizing — it’s sad — people don’t read that much. I want to find new ways to get my written stories — I’m talking more about essays and shorter stuff now because people are inundated with content rather than books. How to get those kinds of stories to an audience, people my age, for example, who just don’t subscribe to magazines or don’t read that much, the answer is probably podcasts and documentaries and things because stories are stories and can be told in many different ways. It’s hard to do that all by myself. I’ve yet to find the right kind of team to do it with me. I’m looking.

Zibby: I’m going to try to help. Really, what you need to do is you should get all of these pieces starting to be optioned.

Jordan: Oh, in Hollywood?

Zibby: Yeah. You should take that story from Nat Geo and sell it into a movie. It would be a great movie.

Jordan: The train across the United States?

Zibby: Yeah.

Jordan: Interesting. Why do you think it would be a good movie? Now I’m asking you. Sorry.

Zibby: Why? I think it would be a good movie because that’s something I would never do. I’m not going to have the time to do that. It’s something that I’m totally curious about. It’s all the stories of the people, but it’s really going to be the story about you. You’re going to have stuff going on. It’s why you want to watch a movie about someone climbing a mountain. People are going through something. You’re learning something. You’re watching. You’re learning about the country. For right now when I feel like the country is so divided and we’re in such a bleak moment, for you to literally blaze a trail through the center of the nation and find what unites us I find extremely exciting. I feel like you could position that as something to band us all together and bring back this spirit and show in all of your moments. Then maybe there’s some through line, like you were working through something with your — I don’t know. I just feel like it would be so beautiful to watch. I think it would be really cool.

Jordan: Wow. Thanks. That sounds great to me. It would be a visually beautiful thing, for sure. That ride was just spectacular, the kinds of scenery.

Zibby: I guess you could start by turning the whole train ride into a book. That could be the first thing, if you wanted.

Jordan: That’s true, or continue to ride trains across the United States and find stories of people because trains are a through line. Here’s something I like about trains. Rivers are the same way. Maybe at all ages, but I feel like especially when you’re in your twenties and just in college or graduating college, you think a lot about where you’re going. You’re always thinking about plans for the future or whatever. Trains, you don’t have to worry about where you’re going. You just sit there. It has a schedule. It has a set amount of time, just like a river, which is why I did a story about a river when I had to do a thesis. I wanted to write something where the structure was kind of just laid out for me. On a river, you don’t have to worry about the direction. It all lays itself out for you, calming in the time when nothing .

Zibby: Maybe the book is something like what you’re saying, all going the same direction or tracks. Tracks: A Journey of a Country. Anyway, whatever. You’re good at this. I’m sure you could turn whatever. I do think that might be a piece for you to focus on to help you scale it all. Not that you need help. Obviously, you’re this amazing journalist for Nat Geo.

Jordan: No, I need help. I need help because it’s, again, like I said, hard to bring it out into the world in a way that is big and doesn’t feel like it’s just an article that the people are going to forget about after three days, and that’s it.

Zibby: You should be optioning. You should also team up with an agent who is in that world more. I’m going to introduce you to my agent. I don’t do any film stuff. He’s really good at selling articles and stories. You probably have an agent already.

Jordan: I have a literary agent who’s amazing. I thank him every day for all that he’s done for me. We’re always interested in partnering with others to make things happen on a bigger scale.

Zibby: More on this after the break. Oh, gosh, now I’m late. Jordan, thank you so much. Thank you for coming on. I’m so excited about you. I really am. I feel like you embody the type of literary-meets-journalistic talent that I hope that there’s so many more of you out there, people like you who will document our world and help us all see things in a new way and, by doing so, help all of us grow.

Jordan: Thank you. That means a lot coming from you especially. I look forward to reading your book, which I got in the mail yesterday. I can’t wait. It’s really exciting.

Zibby: Thank you. You’ll know a lot about me.

Jordan: Take care. Thanks.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


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