“In Colombia,” Davis writes, “there is no limit to what can be squeezed out of a day.” His love of the country is “something visceral ... To be away too long is to be on life support.” Magdalena is steeped in a physical sense of Colombia: the landscapes, the disreputable backstreets, the irrepressibly resilient people. This eclectic log-book of life on the river puts one in mind of Ryszard Kapuściński’s idea of travel writing as “authenticated by its being lived” – “you have experienced this event on your own skin, and it is this experience, this feeling along the surface of your skin, which gives your story its coherence.”
This book is the culmination of a lifetime’s work in the country and is suffused with a love and knowledge that only such long acquaintance can bring. His hope is that the new ecological spirit abroad in Colombia may lead to a cleansing of the river Magdalena itself, which is currently heavily polluted. As a symbol of the country, this would be as much a metaphorical as a physical purification.
Davis draws on his botanical background to survey the astonishing “biological bounty” of a country with 26,000 native flowering plants and 1,932 bird species. He explains why the long-cherished coca leaf, in its unprocessed state, is “more useful and less irritating” than coffee or tea. He plumbs the river’s past as a conduit for music, for myths, for ideas, as well as gold, coffee, tobacco and cocaine. Then there is the cultural complexity of a nation where “miscegenation became the norm”, African ex-slave outcasts served as “the engine of the river trade”, and indigenous lands have only just returned to the stewardship of native people.
At times Davis’s lyricism goes too far: “To slip one’s hand into the river is to return to the point of origins, to connect across the eons to that primordial moment, impossibly distant in time, when celestial bodies, perhaps frozen comets, collided with the earth and brought the elixir of life to a lonely, barren planet spinning in the velvet void of space.”
His passion for Colombia is better expressed in the depth of information he delivers — and the poetic way in which he captures its extraordinary landscape. Those reading it and pondering a trip will be inspired to veer off the tourist path. Others will wonder how its people endured such torment.