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From Daphne to Karie

From Daphne to Karie

by Haruki Murakami
Translated by Christopher Allison

The boat arrived at the harbor at Daphne. From a distance, it looked like any other normal port anywhere in Greece. As we drew closer, however, several aberrations from the norm became apparent. The foremost was that there were only men. In a place where women are forbidden this was only to be expected, but when I was actually confronted with a scene in which not one single woman was present, the effect was suitably profound. There were around a hundred people gathered in the vicinity of the port, but miraculously every single one was male. On top of that, the majority were monks. The scene was thus unusually dark. At last, the Holy Land.

In addition, there were not any identifiable tourists as far as the eye could see, an extremely unusual state of affairs during the Greek summer. There were no stout German couples, no easy-going backpackers with the Canadian flag stitched to their packs. Naturally, there were some people who seemed to be traveling (they had arrived thirty minutes before on the ferry that we had missed). But they were almost all Greek. Moreover, they all wore very simple--that is to say, average Greek--clothing. They were devout men (no devout women) who had come from all over Greece to make a pilgrimage to the holy High Temple of Orthodoxy. The multitude of thronging monks were all wearing the conventional baggy robes of Greek Orthodox holy men. On their heads they wore cylindrical hats that looked something like birthday cakes. Additionally, they all had long beards. I'm not that familiar with Greek Orthodox faith, but I imagine that shaving is contrary to its precepts or something. Their beards were all long and, like a samurai's topknot, were clasped firmly at the end. Seeing monk thus attired was a daily occurrence throughout Greece, but I had never seen so many together in one place before. As I studied this seen with interest, I began to notice subtle differences in their garments and possessions. There were some who appeared to be die-hard ascetics, wearing horribly tattered robes and ropes made of straw around their waists. They looked more like beggars than monks. Interesting. But then immediately next to these, there were trendy-yuppie monks whose robes were completely free of wrinkles, as if they had just picked them up from the cleaners that very morning, with attache cases in their hands and sunglasses hiding their faces. And between these two extremes, there were monks of every conceivable point along the gradation. I wish I could have brought them all together in one single line and arranged them according to their outward appearances.

I couldn't comprehend why so many different styles existed among the monks of a single sect, living on this narrow peninsula.

And it wasn't just clean vs. dirty, either; the color of the robes were also magnificently varied. From pale gray to deep purple to darkest black, the spectrum was complete. I couldn't judge whether it was because the monasteries each had different colors, or whether they varied according to rank or position. And could there really be differences between monks in terms of financial means, between the hip and the square, between the ascetic and the liberal? The more I thought about it, though, the more I came to realize that, well, it's just like that, and ended up accepting it as it was.

It's just like that.

(What I came to realize later is that they really are all individually different. Depending on the monastery they are attached to, and their chosen manner of living, there are substantial variances. Athos is thus a place where one is allowed to choose his own lifestyle and how he spends his time. Therefore their individual differences in appearance reflected real differences beneath.)

As soon as you get into the harbour at Daphne, there is a passport-control type of place. You deposit your passport there and then go to the capital, Karie. The administrative offices for mount Athos are at Karie, and after a customs inspection, you are issued a document granting permission of stay. If you don't have this document, you cannot walk around Mount Athos. They're quite strict.

You go by bus from Daphne to Karie. As buses go, it's a pretty pathetic example, but it still runs, and that's what counts. I've guess that it's been in use for at least 30 years. Any vehicle so long in service seems like it would have used up it's share of divine protection long ago. This is the only bus in the whole region. We got there just as the bus was leaving, but there weren't any seats left so we couldn't go. We tried asking if we if we might get on anyway, but were told bluntly "No." The driver certainly was not the kindest fellow in the world. We had to wait until the bus went to Karie and then came back, which would take an hour all together. Thus, we would be another hour behind schedule. It seemed like one had no choice but to be in a hurry while in Athos. But I'm not at all a hurrying kind of person. Just as the bus was departing, a monk, looking to be in his mid-fifties, walked up to the bus and started pounding on the window, yelling "Hey, let me in." The bus driver said "It's full. Go away," but he just kept pounding on the closed door. Finally, the bus driver gave up and opened the door, and the monk got on. His gaze was fixed, the pounding of his fist was firm, he was like a steamroller. I wondered whether it was appropriate for someone who had taken holy orders to act this way. I truly didn't understand this place at all. From the very beginning there were so many things that I perplexed me. But there was no alternative, so we sat there and waited for an hour.

At the Daphne harbour, there stand a small post office, a small customs house, and a small police station. There's also a cafe. And there are three small general stores. While we waited for the bus, I bought some emergency rations and stuffed them in my backpack. I had figured that as soon as we set foot in Athos we would no longer be able to buy anything from the outside world. Surprisingly, though, the general store had a fairly normal assortment of goods. The boxes were covered with dust and the cans of food had spots of rust on them, but if such things didn't bother you, their selection wasn't bad at all. They had every conceivable type of liquor, from J&B down to cheap ouzo, canned meats and fish, instant coffee, candy. Perhaps pilgrims stopped here on their way to the monasteries, in order to augment the scanty meals served there. I'm not sure whether the monks shopped here or not. But whatever the case may be, Athos didn't seem to be the strict, stoic place of its reputation. Otherwise, why would all this stuff be here? (Later on, I found out why: In addition to the monks, many laborers come to the peninsula, and it's necessary for them to be able to get daily supplies.)

I also bought wine, bread, cheese, a can of corned beef, pears, crackers, and four lemons (these lemons later proved to be an albatross around my neck). I filled my canteen. I also bought a map of the peninsula. Then I went into the cafe and, drinking what would be my last beer, ate a little bread. I dozed by the wharf until the bus came.

At the wharf, there were two dogs and four cats. Examining them closely in to test the rule, I found that both dogs were clearly male. In addition, I found that both had sacrificed their sexual equipment, valiantly and yet sadly. Very well; perfectly in accordance with the rule. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to discern the sex of the cats. Compared to the dogs, the cats of this land seemed to be of very serious disposition, and they were not kind enough to allow close inspection of their genitalia. Moreover, distinguishing males from females among cats is much more difficult than among dogs.

With my experiment not yet complete, and the cats staring at me suspiciously from the top of the wall all the while, the bus came back down the mountain. It was finally time to penetrate into the interior of Athos.