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Uber Tales #6 – Colombia Edition: Life Is A Blessing, Altitude Sickness, The Old Man

Unprofessional drivers in Bogota, altitude sickness, and an old man is nearly run over.

Published

Uber Tales by Wael Abdelgawad

Tonight: Unprofessional drivers in Bogota, altitude sickness, and an old man is nearly run over.

(These Uber Tales (and Lyft too) are true. I have changed the names, and sometimes I combine stories from different days into a single, more cohesive narrative. However, aside from that, these events are all accurate; word-for-word, just as I have experienced them)

Previously: Uber Tales 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

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Friday, December 16, 2022

Life Is A Blessing

Central Bogota, Colombia

I’m in Bogota, the sprawling and teeming capital city of Colombia, so I’m writing from the perspective of a passenger, not a driver. I’m on my way to Masjid Abu Bakr, for Jumu’ah salat, and to meet the imam who will officiate at my wedding in one week, inshaAllah. December traffic in Bogota is horrendous. The city is massive, and drivers often don’t know their way around without GPS. This driver, an old man, has a phone but for some reason is not using GPS. He’s listening to a Christian religious program on the radio, and every now and then he delivers a short lecture into his phone, recording it.

“Life is a blessing,” the old man says into his phone. “Given to us by God. Our purpose is to be grateful for this blessing, and to love one another.”

We meander through a run-down district called Barrios Unidos, where the streets are lined with auto repair shops. Finally I see the masjid’s minaret poking up in the distance. I point to it. “That’s the place!”

The driver wanders, turning right and left and right, looking out of his window at the minaret, tracking it like a hunter following a deer in the woods, until we get there. The ride took a solid hour.

Anyone Know Silat?

Masjid Abu Bakr, BogotaThe masjid is grand. I ask an old Arab man where the bathroom is and he nods silently to the staircase. The downstairs area is cavernous and dark. Back upstairs, in the musallah, it’s wide and beautifully decorated. I see that the population is a mixture of Arabs and Colombian converts, with maybe 120 men in attendance and 15 women. Not a huge turnout for the biggest masjid in a city of 8 million.

The Egyptian imam speaks at length in Arabic. If someone makes the lives of others easy, he says, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) will make his life easy. And if someone makes the lives of others hard, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) will make his life hard. Just as I’m wondering if the entire khutbah will be in Arabic – what about the converts? – another brother stands up and translates.

Jamaat At-Tableegh is in attendance. The brothers are from Indonesia. They serve muffins and milky tea. I ask them if they know Silat, the Indonesian martial art. If anyone says yes, I will have a practice session with them on the spot. But no one does.

 

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Worry Lines

Yajaira and I are going to the restaurant where our wedding will be held, to sample the menu. Uber has no presence in Bogota, but Yajaira orders a car through Didi. It arrives quickly. The Honda sedan is gleaming red, and pristine on the inside.

Yajaira sits in front, and I get in back. There is a high degree of tension between taxis and rideshare drivers in Bogota. Taxi drivers sometimes attack rideshare drivers. So rideshare cars carry no placards, and passengers must sit in front so that it looks like an ordinary group of friends traveling together.

The 30ish year-old driver is short and well dressed, with deep worry lines on his forehead. I ask him if he likes this job.

“It’s what there is to do,” he says. “But this time of year, December, is terrible. Traffic everywhere.”

The Sun Will Be Lowered

It’s only 68 degrees Fahrenheit in Bogota today, but when the sun hits you it feels like being baked alive. Bogota is at 9,000 feet elevation, so the atmosphere is thin. The sun cuts through like a big yellow axe. I see dark-skinned Colombians slathering on sunscreen like war paint. And I’m out here bare-skinned like a dummy.

I’m reminded of a hadith of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him):

Abu Umamah reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The sun will be lowered on the Day of Resurrection to the distance of a mile and its heat will be increased by as much. It will boil skulls just like the boiling of pots. They will sweat by the measure of their sins. Among them are those to whom it will reach their ankles, among them are those to whom it will reach their shins, among them are those to whom it will reach their midsections, and among them are those who are subsumed in sweat.” [Musnad Ahmad 22186]

I cannot imagine the terrible trial of that day. May Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) protect us on that Day, and make our judgment easy, and grant us Jannah… Suddenly this Colombian sun doesn’t seem so bad.

Altitude Sickness

This is a city of millions, crowded into a large mountain plain, surrounded by higher peaks of the Andes mountain range. There are tall buildings everywhere, many of brick, with more modern skyscrapers as well. Hordes of motorcycles and cyclists jockey for space within rivers of traffic. Many of the motorcycles carry female passengers on the back. The government here recently passed a law making it illegal for motorcycles to carry passengers, because two-man motorcycle teams have been responsible for assassinations and robberies. But there were huge protests in which the motorcyclists shut down the streets. So the government amended the law to say that female passengers would still be allowed.

Impressions: choking exhaust. Sirens. Murals everywhere. Thick grass and trees springing up in every open space. Flowers of all kinds growing wild on the side of the road. Jerry-built shacks cramming the hillsides. Mountains ringing the city like prison walls.

We’re climbing. I can see the city spread out down below, a sea of humanity like a premonition – once again – of the judgment of Qiyamah.

I didn’t realize the restaurant was so high up. If this keeps up I will experience altitude sickness soon, as I know from my last visit here. I’ll be hit with debilitating nausea that won’t leave until we return to lower altitudes. On the other hand the air has become fresh and invigorating.

We climb further and I feel the first twinges of nausea. It worsens, and I feel sea sick, and my head starts to hurt. I rub my stomach and don’t say anything. Fortunately, the road drops from there, curving downhill for a few minutes, and the sickness vanishes. The terrain flattens and a wealthy suburb of Bogota springs up.

The Venezuelan Contingent

A young man juggles balls in the road. He stands right in front of the cars, blocking their way until they give him some change. His skill is phenomenal.

A frighteningly thin woman sells packs of gum. Her little boy is coughing. Quite likely the juggler and the thin woman are Venezuelans, as the city is crammed with half a million Venezuelan refugees. Many walked tremendous distances to get here, fleeing extreme poverty and political violence back home. They are restaurant workers, food delivery drivers, street sellers, and maids. They are also street performers, beggars, prostitutes, and muggers.

I give the thin woman with the sick child 5,000 pesos (one U.S. dollar). Later I wish I’d given her more. Sometimes I forget the value of the Colombian currency.

There is so much suffering in the world. If Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) wanted to, He could make this a perfect world, with no refugees, or hunger. No oppression or occupation, no torture or war. He could make everyone believers, and make Islam victorious and successful everywhere. But that is not the way of this dimension of existence. Certainly, the world is full of Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) mercy as well. His Mercy floods the universe. And as for the suffering of humanity, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has given us human beings the guidance, intellect, strength, and resources to solve these problems. We must do the work. We must fulfill the trust that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has given us. We must walk the path of truth and goodness, and if we do, Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) help will come. That is the framework in which Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has placed us human beings.

Still, in the end, there is no escaping suffering in this world, to one degree or another.

Trucks And Accidents

The restaurant where we plan to have the wedding sits beside a neighborhood park where a small crowd dances to a live band playing salsa music. The restaurant is the Swiss Chalet. It’s lovely, with flowers, strings of lights, and hanging white fabrics.

On the way back the traffic is as thick as bricks. The atmosphere here is 25 % thinner than at sea level, so there is less to filter the sun’s radiation, and it beats down ruthlessly. We pass through an area where trucks are loaded. Trucks are everywhere, parked on both sides of the road, nearly blocking it. A muscular woman with tattooed arms stands in the road, shouting instructions to drivers.

Drivers here do not yield, and there are often no lane markers. Accidents are common. I’m constantly bracing myself, expecting to crash. But we arrive unscathed.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

If This Light Is Lit, I Am Stolen

Bogota taxi

“If this sign is lit, I am stolen.”

Our matching silver rings are lovely, but mine is a bit small. We’re going to a jewelry shop in central Bogota to have it resized. The driver, a young man with gang tattoos on his arms, has a tablet computer mounted to the dash, and is watching an R-rated Wayans brothers comedy as he drives. The volume is turned high.

The taxi ahead of us has a light on the back and a sign that says, “If this light is lit, I am stolen. Call 1 2 3.” At some point the car comes to a halt, as the streets are so choked with pedestrians that the car can’t proceed. I’m happy to get out and walk.

Today is Sunday, and it turns out the jewelry shop closed early. We stop to eat, and by the time we start back it’s dark and raining.

Central Bogota, with a view of the mountains.

The Didi driver is very overweight, an unusual thing in Colombia. His t-shirt doesn’t come all the way down to his shorts, and his belly hangs out. He is young, and his face is open and innocent. There’s a photo of a boy taped to the sun visor. I ask him if that’s his son.

“Yes,” he says. “Julian. He is my reason for living. It’s for him that I am out here, doing this work. He will be ten years old in January.”

The Old Man

The corpulent young driver has a heavy foot. He drives like he’s trying to set a record. We are hurtling downhill on a dark street. The driver keeps checking messages on his phone, holding it right in front of his face. The level of unprofessionalism among drivers down here is astounding. This young man speeds as if he’s driving an experimental rocket car, while barely paying attention to the road. Up ahead, in the dark, I see an old man walking across the road slowly, carrying a bag of groceries. He’s wearing a face mask, and his head is down. He doesn’t see us coming. And the driver has not seen him.

“Watch out for the old man!” I say in Spanish. The driver sees the man and swerves, barely missing him. The old man takes a startled, stumbling step and almost falls. We very nearly killed him. He never would have seen it coming. One moment he would have been crossing the street, thinking about his wife who is ill in bed and what he’ll make her for dinner, or about his children or grandchildren, or about the World Cup – and the next moment he would have been a denizen of the aakhirah, being questioned by Nakir and Munkar, the terrible angels of the grave.

Alhamdulillah, I am very, very glad that we did not hit the old man. That would have haunted me. And the old man wouldn’t have liked it much either.

“It wasn’t my fault,” the driver complains. “He was crossing in the middle of the road.”

“True,” I agree. “But maybe slow down a bit.”

* * *

 

Next: Drug Dealers, Hunters and Having Mercy

 

Uber Tales appears once a month.

Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s fiction stories on this website.

Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

Alhamdulillah, we're at over 850 supporters. Help us get to 900 supporters this month. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: Wael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including, Zawaj.com, IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com. He teaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at WaelAbdelgawad.com. For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.

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