Come with Me to Mount Athos. Part 29

Part 28

The Jungle, the Umbrella and the Prickly Pear Cacti

Our backpacks “sighed” with their flaps and perched on our backs. Igor straightened his baseball cap and headed the procession. We began a measured ascent along the winding road to Karyes. According to the map, the path should start somewhere higher. We’ll see… The two-story hut in the distance looked like the dwelling of a fairy-tale fisherman.

As we were leaving the Iveron Monastery, a black mongrel dog followed us. I have read about this dog in someone’s memories when I was preparing for my trip to Athos. The dog did not even think of begging for food; instead it started showing us the way. In fact it was us who were following the dog, which seemed to know exactly where we were going. It was running two steps ahead of us, almost without looking back. Soon the dog turned off the road onto a narrow trail, and continued choosing the right direction at each fork. It was clear as day that it had done that many times before. The mongrel was running on the windward side, and soon the dog’s smell began blasting our noses. Although we tried to find a secret meaning in everything that was happening to us on Athos, our spiritual knowledge was clearly not enough to explain this particular experience. Trying not to breathe through my nose, I tried to stay focused on prayer. Frankly, it wasn’t working very well.

The road was climbing higher and higher, and soon the hut and the fishing nets entangling it were left somewhere below and behind. My muscles ached, but quite bearably. Leaning on my staff and using it as an extra leg, I was managing to walk briskly, almost without the limping, caused by the lactic acid in the muscles. Reaching a turn in the serpentine path, we saw a sign with the Greek inscription “Stavronikita”, pointing in the direction that we needed. We haven’t even begun to get tired, and our destination was already a stone’s throw away! Diving into a green tunnel, we began to descend towards the sea. The dog was still running ahead of us. When we fell a little behind, our four-legged GPS sat down on a stone, scratching its ear. 

Our descent ended at an ancient stone tower standing guard at the water’s edge. It was a pier of the Koutloumousiou monastery. We jumped off the stones onto the coastal sand. Our feet began to ‘skid’ making it more difficult to walk. The route went along a small bay, which soon rounded smoothly to the right, while our well-trodden path went straight, up and then to the left. A house (or maybe an ascetic’s cell) with a stone tower appeared on the hill in front of us. It was surrounded by a fence. We hardly had any doubt as to where to go. The monastery of Stavronikita was straight ahead of us, but suddenly we found ourselves cut off from it by a gently-sloping cliff, abutting against the water and located just underneath this solitary house. It was plain to see that we needed to go up towards the hut and then around it, and somewhere there was the continuation of our path. When we came to the gate in the fence, I noticed that the dog had disappeared. We passed the bridge and found ourselves on someone’s territory. Cyril took out the map, and we tried to figure out why it was showing a trail going along the coastline, while we were absolutely assured that there was not a single chance for us to pass there. My companions took off their backpacks and decided to rest and drink some water. In the meantime, I decided to go on a reconnaissance. I discovered an olive garden, an apiary, a simple vegetable garden and a door to a cell, locked from the inside. I knocked, shouted a prayer and then knocked again. There was no answer. Cyril caught up with me. He was incessantly taking pictures and generally showed a healthy interest in life, which was appropriate for his age. We saw another gate, leading to the other side of the slope, seemingly in the direction that we needed.

 – All clear. This way, – I was being self-confident again,  having completely forgotten my previous experience, showing that self-confidence is punishable on Mount Athos.

 I called the others, and we followed the reconnoitered route. Later it became clear to us that instead of doing that, we had to find the continuation of our coastal path somewhere on the side of that cliff.

 Valera, who was walking behind Georgievich, kept bugging him over a black men’s umbrella with a curved handle, sticking out of his modular backpack. He wanted to know why someone would need an umbrella on Athos.

 – I forgot to leave it in Moscow. It’s a nice umbrella, why throw it away? 

The path led us out of the gate, past a wooden toilet and then down and to the left. Soon we found ourselves at the bottom of a cleavage, on the bank of a dried-up stream. Then the ascent began. We could see that other pilgrims like us had walked that trail earlier. Hopping from stone to stone, and from ledge to ledge seemed easy at first. But soon the climbs became more and more difficult. I remembered my student mountaineering youth. I was not a good climber, but I enjoyed doing it.

Once I was planning to lead a group to the Central Caucasus. That group ended up staying at home, because  one of the members had a wedding, another got sick, and the rest had other good reasons not to go. As a result, the group could not be registered. But I really wanted to go to the Caucasus in August, and I talked two of my comrades, Mirek Sukhotsky and Misha Brusovanik, into travelling with me. Mirek was a student at the Medical Institute, and Misha went to an art school, played the violin and guitar and later became a great musician. Three people (one of whom has never been to the mountains) going across the Caucasus is hands down reckless. So I decided to take a simple route.

We did not have a map of that area, but the experienced members of our tourist club shared their route schemes with us. Everything seemed fine until we realized that we had climbed a wrong mountain pass.  We found out about that when we found a note from the previous group that had been there before us.  The clouds coming from below brought zero visibility, making it impossible for us to go back. After lying on our backpacks for about two hours, we decided to go down the river valley on the opposite side of the mountain. The descent went well, although not without incident. We found ourselves at the river and decided to move along the slope past a village and then to Lake Ritsa. None of us had any idea what the canyon had prepared for us. We entered it like a harpoon enters a fish – there was no way back. We were still careless students then, and it was there that we truly prayed for the first time in our lives. Nothing happened to us; God kept us safe, but when we reached the mountain village, it seemed to us that we were born again. The rocks and the impenetrable vegetation of the canyon left a deep mark in our souls. I especially remember the thorny vines that grew at the level of our feet. We called them “snappy trees”. They were thin, strong, inconspicuous and evil.

Here I was, climbing the rocks of Mount Athos, holding out my walking stick to help the person behind me and feeling as If I was in the Caucasus again, crawling through that old river canyon.  My heart skipped a beat. Doctors call that extrasystole, but that was something else. Moving to the other side of the cleft, we found ourselves in the thickets of the same “snappy tree”. Some of the thorny vines grew at breast height. Tearing them was impossible, and we had to either cut through, dive underneath or go round them. What we thought to be a trail for pilgrims, turned out to be an animal path. I had not enough determination to turn back. It seemed to me that we were a hundred steps away from being able to walk freely. But the green jaws of the wild forest were swallowing us deeper and deeper. We were still not losing direction, intuitively trying to return to the path by the sea, which we had temporarily abandoned. Sweat was running down our faces like mountain streams; the salty drops were crashing against the leaves of hostile thorny bushes, slashing us with all their might. Sometimes I had to lie on my back and crawl in this position (not an easy job with my “priestly” complexion), other times we had to cut through the thickets or go back and look for an alternative way to move on. 

 Georgievich’s umbrella eventually snatched a moment and slid out of his backpack. Valera, tripping over it, picked it up and returned it to the owner during a halt. The umbrella did not want to sit still, slid out again and broke (most likely, out of spite). Vladimir Georgievich hung it on a branch of a tree and continued to climb. Before he was able to breathe a sigh of relief, the umbrella found a way to catch up with its owner. This time Cyril stumbled upon it and took it with him to return it to the owner. Looking far ahead, I will say that Georgievich wasn’t able to get rid of his  umbrella before we reached Stavronikita monastery. But that was still a long way down the road.

 When we were sharing our impressions afterwards, none of us could remember exactly how much time we spent in this “jungle”. I remember being exhausted (despite the fact that my backpack was not the largest in our group) while my measured prayer turned into a silent cry, “Mother of God, get us out of here!” A gap appeared below. Through it and down the rocky steps I was already descending to the shore, littered with waste of civilization, thrown out by the waves of the surf. The sound of the restless sea and the fresh wind were greeting us. Soon nothing reminded us of our recent adventure except the torn cassock, scratched legs and my slightly bleeding right hand. Later, in Belarus, I took several thorns out of my rug, which I had been strapping to the bottom of my backpack on Mount Athos.

 I gazed at the impromptu cross on the top of a cliff, made by someone from two sticks tied together. A minute later I was sitting on the stone forehead of that cliff and throwing stones into the playful sea. I was thinking about spiritual life and how it was similar to what we had just experienced. Here you are, knowing exactly where to go and thinking that you have it under control and your goal is a stone’s throw… The next thing you know is that you are suddenly lost, exhausted and unable to get out until you cry out to the sky. The rest of the group caught up. We haven’t lost anyone. We rested, drank a sip of water and went along the newly acquired path. Walking seemed easy after what we had just experienced. After 40 minutes, we went onto the road rising from the monastery’s marina to the gates of Stavronikita.

 Yet another experience awaited us here. Have you ever heard of prickly pears? It is an edible cactus. Its stems are similar to beaver’s tails and are covered with small needles and burgundy-orange fruits. At the fork of the road leading to the monastery, we discovered huge prickly pear bushes. How could we walk by without trying this exotic food!? Using our knives and trying not to touch the needles, we peeled and ate a dozen of exotic fruits. Their taste was between persimmon and kiwi, only with small seeds. In fact, they were pretty tasty. The most interesting effect came later and lasted quite a while. For about two days, we walked, sat, prayed in church, had soulful conversations and even slept, constantly pulling out the invisible prickly pear needles. Oh, what a feeling! Valera joked about it, “A little free cheese for pilgrims”. He was certainly right. After dinner comes the reckoning. It must be our nature, which we inherited from our forefathers, that makes us fall into the same trap time and again.

Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds

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