In the Same Boat
My son Jeremy and I have been hiking in the Judean Hills since the early hours and are taking a break on a shelf of rock overlooking a wadi. It is the first day of the Jewish month of Nisan and time to read the Hallel prayer. As I turn the pages of the small, worn siddur I use when on a trek, a slip of paper falls out. On it are scribbled a number of names: the Kamarata boatmen. Twenty-five years ago almost to the day, Jeremy and I were part of another prayer service, on another high ledge, together with the boatmen. This is the story of the alleluia worship of the Indians of Kamarata in Venezuela. My recollection of that morning is so vivid that I write it as if it had occurred only a day or two ago.
“Mucho gusto, you will have a good time, amigos,” Señor Hernandez greeted Jeremy and me. A heavyset, middle-aged mestizo with a florid face, Señor Hernandez was the manager of the encampment of Canaima.
Jeremy had been trekking through South America, sometimes alone, sometimes with other young men who, like himself, needed to lose themselves in the open spaces of the continent after their service in the Israel Defense Forces. When he had been gone for a long year, I arranged to meet him. He suggested Venezuela. He would take me to Canaima National Park and from there to Salto Angel. We purchased vouchers in Caracas for the trip upriver and flew from the capital to a landing strip in the southeastern corner of the country.
Lying in the heart of a vast national park that embraced the Gran Sabana—undulating grassland interspersed with clusters of palms and bromeliads—Canaima was then, in the early 1980s, a raw, sprawling encampment, not the popular tourist site it has become.
The Rio Carrao rushed over six waterfalls into a tannin-stained lagoon at the edge of the camp. Tepuys—tabletop mountains—rose abruptly to a height of more than 3,000 feet from the savannah that stretched seemingly without end in every direction. Rainforests covered the banks and slopes of the streams that traced the terrain. The land came as close to Edenas any place I had ever seen; the scattered tents and huts of the camp were but a frail and transient encroachment on solitude.
Señor Hernandez was standing in front of the thatched hut that served as his office, smoking a cigarette.
Then a look of great surprise fleeted over his face, he mumbled a word—miserere, mercy, I thought I heard but wasn’t sure—and fell backward, eyes wide open, not breathing.
Jeremy had seen combat in Lebanon with the Golani Brigade, and this was not the first time he had been at the side of a fallen man staring blindly into space. He straddled Hernandez and began pumping his chest with open hands and fists. Bending over his face, I began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
We kept it up for over an hour, taking turns with Indians who had gathered. It was futile: Señor Hernandez was dead.
Hernandez’s assistants vanished; there was his funeral to attend to in the forest, and the rites of mourning with his family. No one was left in the camp to take charge, no one knew anything of our trip inland.
A woman collecting firewood told us of an old Indian who lived in a cave behind Salto El Sapo, the Waterfall of the Frog. He was a man who could make things happen, she said, a brujo, a master of the occult. We asked one of the camp’s remaining workers to row us across the lagoon to El Sapo.
The only access to the cave was by a narrow, slippery path hewn into the rock face of the falls behind the curtain of cascading waters. The brujo was seated on a pile of blankets. He pointed to an array of postcards tacked to boards lining the quartz-flecked walls. “From my friends,” he said. “From all the world. See!” Bearing the stamps of many countries and addressed simply to The Old Man, Salto Sapo, Canaima, the cards were filled with gratitude and respect.
“My friends do not forget me,” the brujo said. He studied us for a few long minutes. Then: “From where have you come?”
“We are from a country far away. From Israel,” I said.
“Ah! You are not the first. It is well with you there, now?”
“No,” Jeremy replied. “There still is war.”
“You have been in it, yes.” A statement, rather than a question. Again a pause. “You wish to see the great falls, yes?”
“Yes, that is what we wish,” I said. “But Señor Hernandez…”
“Yes, I know. Nazareno will take you.”
“Nazareno? Who? When?”
“He will meet you. You are welcome to Canaima. Now I must rest.”
The next day, standing in line at the cooking shack, we heard several young men ahead of us talking among themselves in Arabic with an occasional expression in Hebrew. They were from Lebanon, they said when Jeremy asked. Soldiers on leave from a Christian militia with the South Lebanese Army, they had trained with a commando unit in Israel. We are your comrades, they said. As the conversation shifted into Hebrew Army slang, a stocky brown-complexioned man walked up to me.
“I am Nazareno,” he said. “We go tomorrow. Early.”
We set out in a longboat with a small outboard motor. “The motor is mostly for steering,” Nazareno explained in Spanish; Jeremy had acquired a good command of the language. “In the deep water we all must row, and when we turn from the big river into the Churún we push and pull. The water is low now.”
There were 12 of us on the boat: four Kamarata Indian boatmen—Nazareno, Jesus Maria, Angelo and Santa Maria; Jeremy and me; four young Israelis, like Jeremy recently discharged from the Army; and Jim and Ellen, an American couple. The Israelis had drifted into Canaima with no further destination in mind and hitched a ride with us; the Americans also had purchased vouchers in Caracas and found themselves stranded on Hernandez’s death.
Nazareno took me aside while the others were loading gear and provisions. “We have rice and some chickens and tins of beans and pork. For you and your son we have brought something else. The brujo said you will not eat the flesh of the pig and maybe no other meat.”
How did the brujo know? “Muchas gracias,” I said. “Rice will be fine. We did not expect more.”
It rained little, but the detritus of the luxuriant flora accumulating on the jungle floor was moist and inhabited by snakes. We slept on hammocks beneath makeshift shelters of planks and palm fronds.
I rose early, walked a short distance into the trees and, with tefilin strapped to arm and brow, recited the morning prayers. The Kamaratas watched silently.
Meals were set out on rough tables. For Jeremy and me there were tins of tuna and packages of cheese. At first, the other Israelis went for the food meant for us before turning to the communal provisions. The second day, Nazareno pushed them away until we had eaten. “You have no respect,” he said to them.
We came to rapids that could not be navigated by the heavy boat. Everything movable was unloaded. One of the Kamaratas and Jim maneuvered the boat through the white water; Jim had worked on boating expeditions in North America and volunteered for the passage. The rest of us undertook the portage.
The climb up the cliff was hazardous. Steep, at spots nearly vertical, it provided few secure holds for foot and hand. Awkward with the loads strapped to our backs, we slipped again and again as brush grabbed for support tore loose from our grasps. After more than two hours, we reached a ledge near the top, jutting out over the chasm.
Exhausted, we undid our packs and sank to the ground. Except the Kamaratas. Moving to the far end of the ledge, they sat upright and motionless against the mountain wall. Nazareno beckoned to me.
Their faces turned to the mist rising from the strip of white water below, the Kamaratas began to chant in a language of which Jeremy did not understand a word. Swaying to the rhythm, I took up the chant, repeating the strange, polysyllabic sounds of the refrain.
The chanting stopped. Turning to me, Nazareno said: “Our language. When we pray, our language. The priests are angry when they hear us. Alleluia, they call it. Heathen prayer.”
“You don’t pray Christian prayers?” I asked.
“Sometimes. We say the words in church. When our hearts are full, we speak to our God with our words.”
“But you are Christians!”
“The names they gave us are Christian,” Nazareno said. “They are not our real names.”
“The missionaries gave you those names?”
“Yes. The ones called padre who do the magic with the bread and wine.”
“And you do not believe that…magic?”
“No. It is their brujo. It brought us death.” He paused and held my look. “You know.”
Before I could acknowledge that, yes, I knew what happened to the tribes when the Spanish and Portuguese arrived, Nazareno went on, impassively, telling the story of a defeated people, the story that had been endlessly told and retold and had been drained of passion in the telling: “Long ago. Long before our grandfathers. The ones who came first to our valley were their warriors. They hunted us. The people who were not killed went into the forest. There was no food. The brown robes who came after the warriors said, ‘We come to save you with the cross.’ They gave food. The people went back to their villages.” He held my look. “You are not Christian.” A statement rather than a question. Did Nazareno have that from the brujo of El Sapo?
“No,” I said. “I am a Jew. A Hebrew,” I added, not sure the Indian would understand.
“I know you,” Nazareno said. “They have hunted you, too. Ahhy! We are brothers. The lord of the forest is with you.”
Salto Angel. More than 3,000 feet of free-falling waters, the world’s highest waterfall, the destination of our trip. The photograph tacked to the door of my study has not faded. A ribbon of white water plunging straight down the naked face of atepuy. Great billows of spray and mist. The stream below cascading through a ravine winding to the Churún. Overarching tropical forest. Drenched in the gusts of spray, aware of nothing but creation’s masterwork, the words of the psalmist came to me, How great are Thy works, O Lord!
Jeremy reads the first psalm of the Hallel out loud. Halleluja, Halleluja. The words float and echo over the wadi plunging down Mount Giora in the hills of Judea.
Whenever I hear the Hallel sung in my synagogue, I also hear the chanting of the alleluia, and in my mind’s eye I see the swaying forms of my brothers, the Kamaratas.