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«The River of our Life»

Небольшое эссе о реке Магдалена и детских воспоминаниях Маркеса (1996). Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, this essay first appeared in Environment and Urbanisation. It appears here by arrangement with Third World Network Features. Copyright «People & the Planet» 1996.

Only one thing could make me want to be a child again: to travel once more by boat on the river Magdalena. Anyone who did not have that experience cannot even imagine what it was like. I had to make the trip twice a year — up to Bogota and back — during my six years at secondary school and the first two at university.

On each journey I learnt more about life that I ever did at school, and in a better way. When the river was in full flow, the trip from Barranquilla on the Atlantic coast up to puerto Salgar, the train link to Bogota took five days. When there was little rain — which was most often — the trip could take as long as three weeks.

The train from Puerto Salgar wound its way up to Bogota for a whole day as if clambering from one rocky outcrop to another. In the steepest climbs it would roll backwards to gain impetus, then charge forward again, puffing and blowing like a dragon.

Sometimes the passengers even had to get off and walk up to the next ridge to help lighten the load. The villagers alongside the track were glacial and sad with their eternal women at the train window selling yellow chickens cooked whole, and creamed potatoes that smelt like hospital food.

The train reached Bogota at six in the evening, which ever since has seemed to me the very worst moment of life. Bogota was a dismal, frozen city, with clanking trams that sent up showers of sparks at every bend, and a permanent drizzle of rain mixed with soot.

Men dressed in black hats scurried along, jostling each other as though they had urgent business to attend to. Not a single woman was to be seen on the streets. We had to spend the whole year there, pretending to study, although all we were really doing was waiting for December to come round again so that we could travel on the river Magdalena once more.

In those days the boat had three decks and two long funnels. At night they steamed by like lit-up villages, leaving a trail of music and fantastic dreams in the shut-off riverside hamlets. Whereas Mississippi steam boats had their paddles on the sides, ours had them at the stern, and I have never seen their like anywhere else in the world.

They had immediately accessible names: Atlantico, Medellin, Captain de Caro, David Arango U. As in Conrad's stories, their captains were tough but soft-hearted. They ate like brutes but never slept alone in their remote cabins. The crew called themselves sailors as if they put to sea, but when they mixed with real sailors in the bars and brothels of Barranquilla, everyone knew them as 'steamboatmen'.

The journey was slow and full of surprises. In the daytime, we passengers would sit out on the upper deck and watch the world go by. We could see alligators lying in the shadows like tree trunks, their jaws wide open as they waited for some prey to fall in.There were huge number of herons that flew up in alarm out of the ship's wake; flocks of wild duck on the flooded marshes; endless shoals of fish; and on the muddy banks, manatees gave suck to their young with haunting cries that sounded like singing.

Sometimes, we would be awakened from our fiesta by a nauseous stench, and see the huge, swollen corpse of a drowned cow floating down with the current, a solitary vulture perched on its bloated belly. Throughout the trip we were awakened in bewilderment at dawn by the screech of monkeys and the endless clatter of parakeets.

Nowadays, on plane journeys, it is hard to get to know anyone. On those river Magdalena boats, we all ended up like one large family, as we agreed to meet up each year for the journey. The Eljach family boarded at Calamar, the penas and the Del Toros joined us La Plata; the Estorino and Vinas families at Magangue, the Villafanes at El Banco.

The longer the trip lasted, the more fun we had. Our lives mixed fleetingly with that of the stop over ports; more than once their destinies became entwined forever. Vincent Escudero, a medical student, joined the wedding dance at Gamarra without being invited, danced with the prettiest woman there without asking permission, and was shot and killed by her husband. By contrast, during one legendary drinking bout in Barrancabermeja, Pedro Pablo Guillen married the first girl to take his fancy, and is still living happily with her and their nine children. The irreplaceable Jose Palencia, a born musician, got himself into a drumming competition in Tenerife, won a cow and sold it on the spot for 50 pesos, a fortune in those days.

Sometimes the boat would run aground on a sandbank for a couple of weeks; nobody minded in the slightest, because the fun continued unabated, and a letter with the captain's sealring imprint was enough to explain the delay in turning up for school.

One night during my last journey for 1948, we were all woken by a heart-rending cry from the riverbank. It was a cow manatee, which had become caught in the branches of a fallen tree. Our captain Climaco Conde Abello, who was one of the finest, ordered his men to train the searchlights on the spit where the commotion was coming from. The men jumped into the water, tied the boat to a capstan, and succeeded in disentangling it. The manatee was a fantastical, strangely moving creature about four metres in length. Its skin was a smooth pale colour, and from the waist up it looked just like a women, with the swollen breasts of a loving mother, and huge sad eyes that shed human tears.

It was this same captain whom I first heard say that the world would come to an end if everybody went on killing the animals of the river. He forbade anyone to shoot at them from on board. «If people want to kill, let them do it in their own homes», he would shout, «not on my boat».

Unfortunately, nobody listened to him.

Thirteen years later, on 19 July 1961, a friend phoned me in Mexico to tell me that the paddle-steamer David Arango had caught fire and had been reduced to ashes in the port of Magangue. As I hung up, I had the dreadful feeling that my youth was finally over, and that all that was left of our river of fond memories had gone to blazes along with the steamer.

And so it proved.

Nowadays, the river Magdalena is dead, its water poisoned, its animals hunted to extinction. The conservation work the government has started talking about ever since a group of concerned journalists made the question topical is nothing more than a comic diversion. It will only be possible to rehabilitate the river Magdalena through the strenuous efforts of at least four generations: in other words, a whole century.

People talk too readily of the reafforestation of the river Magdalena. What this in fact entails is he planting of 59,110 million trees along its banks. To spell it out, it would require fifty-nine thousand one hundred and ten million new trees. Even so, the greatest problem is not the number of trees needed, but where they would be planted. Almost all the worthwhile land is privately owned, and a complete reafforestation would mean covering 90 per cent of it. It is worth asking who the kind owners might be who would willingly give up 90 per cent of their land just to plant trees, and in so doing also give up 90 per cent of their current income.

Nor does the pollution affect only the river Magdalena. Not only have all its tributaries become sewage systems for the riverbank towns and villages, but they also carry and accumulate industrial, agricultural, animal and human waste, all of which flows into the gigantic funnel of national filth that is Bocas de Ceniza.

In November 1980, two guerilla fighters fleeing from the army threw themselves into the river Bogota. They managed to escape, but almost died from being infected by the river water. For many years now, the people dwelling on the river Magdalena, especially in its lowest reaches, neither drink nor use its water, or eat fresh fish from the river. They would be eating — excuse the expression — shit.

The task is staggering, but at least it is measurable. The full plan of what needs to be done is detailed in a study carried out some years ago by a joint Dutch-Colombian team. Its 30 volumes are now gathering dust in the archives of the National Hydrological and Meteorological Institute. The deputy director of the monumental work was Jairo Murillo, a young engineer from Antioquia. He devoted half his life to it, and before finishing sacrificed the rest as well: he drowned in the river of his dreams.

It goes without saying that no presidential candidate in recent years has run the risk of losing his life in the same way.

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