Why, oh why, didn’t I book another transfer at the same time Rachel did? 

I began pacing in the hostel’s spacious common area. Alone, since the other guests had already gone for their day’s tours. I couldn’t help it. My Calama airport transfer had still not arrived. Although my onward flight to Australia was the next morning, suppose I missed the plane and the next flight was too late?

Rachel, whom I had met on the tour to the altiplanic lagoons, was shown the numerous complaints against this transfer provider on the internet. So she had sensibly booked her return transfer with someone else.

But I had already booked a return package at Calama on arrival, because it was slightly cheaper that way. Was I going to regret being penny wise?

It will be ok.

R- came out to the common room for his morning chores, and saw me pacing. Seeing me fretful, he came over and asked what was the matter. I told him my airport transfer had not yet arrived, and I did not know if it would. I had called, but I was only told to wait some more.

His calm, kindly face eased. He told me not to worry.

But how could I not? I knew how long the drive took the other way, and it was coming up to being just enough time to do it, and check into the flight. R- moved to a table, motioning with his hand for me to sit down.

It will be ok. And he said it with such utter conviction, that I stopped pacing and came to join him.

The kindly caretaker who reminded me of fakirs

I liked R-. He was the first person who greeted me when I arrived at the hostel. With a hug, actually, which took me by surprise at first. We Southeast Asians are not physically demonstrative with strangers. I don’t think I really got used to the Latin touchy greetings.

He was a strange one, in some ways. He said little, only took care of us. When I finally realised I was having altitude headaches on the first day, he offered me dried coca leaves and made me rica-rica tea.

He was always cheerful too, but not in that annoying peppy extroverted way. Just in a simple way, as if he was free of worry, and content with whatever comes. Not like a fool, but as if he was sure that there was nothing to be worried about. Like a fakir.

Always busy, and never seeming to be idle, his shock of grey hair reminded me a little bit of Einstein. Always making people feel welcome, ever helping out. He was never irritable, never impatient. Never had a bad word to say, calm and happy and kind.

It was enviable.

The story of a near-death experience

But this time, R- looked just the slightest bit jittery, seated across from me. He looked like he wanted to ask me something.

He began by saying that he wanted to tell me something about himself.

I was in an accident once, he said. He had to repeat it a few times, before I could resolve his accented English.

“Accident?” I finally got it.

“Si.” He showed me the scar defacing his cheek. Oddly, until he actually turned his face to show it, I never really saw it. It simply blended into the lines of his face. Even today, looking at the wefie of us that I took, I still can’t make out the scar.

He continued, telling me how he nearly died. Not the accident, you see, but after. He was passing through the tunnel of life, he said. There was light, yellow light. As he went higher, it became yellow-white. And far higher as he rose more and more, it became a bright white. His life rolled up to him as he rose up.

But he was returned.

Amazing. I wonder why this is such a common account of near-death experiences, and I also wondered why he was telling this to a woman running late for a flight.

Sunlight streaming down a natural rock skylight in the Rainbow Valley

Finding his religion

“I, not Catholic,” he then said. That brought me back to the present. Oh, that’s unusual for this continent, I thought to myself. He shook his head for emphasis.

Then he asked me, looking somewhat apprehensive, whether I was. He doesn’t want me to say yes, I realised. Growing even more perplexed, I shook my head no.

R- seemed relieved, as though it confirmed something, then proceeded to tell me that Catholicism was not real. But he didn’t say it in that disillusioned, bitter way of apostates, nor in the dismissive, prideful way that atheists normally have. This alone intrigued me, even though I still had no clue why I was in this conversation in the first place. I had the feeling that something during his presence in the light was what gave him this conviction.

No, he continued. The light, the unspeakably beautiful energy that he had seen – this energy was his religion.

He pointed at my chest. “Corazon,” he said. Ah, I know that word! A childhood of occasionally following Spanish telenovelas permanently left me with the word for ‘heart’.

“Heart?” I asked. He nodded. Si.

He told me, my heart energy was very beautiful, and he would feel it when I leave.

Intrigued, I asked him if he could see it. I wondered if it was like seeing auras. He nodded yes. He told me he could feel the energy of people in the heart, ever since his near-death experience.

Selfie on a bright street in San Pedro de Atacama (background altered to enhance brightness, for artistic effect)

Beyond the shell of ego

I was quiet, reflective. I can certainly understand the greater sensitivity to the universal centre, to God, once you manage to glimpse it with the veil of this material world lifted. No one who has not reached that state of being would understand what that is like, not even many of those who consider themselves ‘religious’, when your ego shatters and is cast off like so many rags, and you feel yourself within the flow of the universe.

It was like walking across the sky, I once told my agnostic friend. A state of complete peacefulness and oneness that finally removes all worry and doubt. You feel sorry to be returned into your material existence. You understand then, analytical though you were before, why the mystics spend their time trying to return to that state, and try their best to stay in it.

In that state, ‘see’ and ‘feel’ are interchangeable indeed. And R- had been closer to death – to physical death. Whereas I had died in the ego only.

Explaining his religion

He pointed generally at the bunk beds in the different rooms, to tell me who else had good energy. It was not in a judging way. There was no sense that he ‘approved’ or ‘disapproved’. He merely spoke factually, just saying what he had sensed, as if he was simply picking out which people had an iPhone.

Many of the girls seemed to do all right. I thought that was interesting, since they had varied backgrounds. One of the guys did not – I was not super surprised. He had a rebellious way to him, even if he was quite amusing as a storyteller. He pointed to a private room where he said the energy was quite bad, with a look of foreboding on his face. I never saw who had taken the room, only that two people had.

He mentioned G- specifically, a doctor from Europe, who was just meh. I raised my eyebrows at that. I remembered her. She was in my dorm, and had remarked on Malaysians and Indonesians being ‘very religious’ upon learning where I was from, as though it seemed a thing completely incomprehensible. That said, she was also the only one who apologised for speaking in the room while I was praying.*

And then he finally came to the point, asking his question: “What is your religion?” He pointed at my heart. That energy, he said by way of explanation, was like the Light that he called ‘his religion’.

What is my religion?

Oh, what a simple, simple question, on its surface! But I knew, from long years of life and reflection, that there are times when someone asks what, but they really want to ask why. And when someone asks about you, sometimes they’re really asking about themselves. 

In these situations, the answer cannot be given without knowing the other person’s unspoken question.

So many, many ways I could answer the spoken question! There’s the simple, one-word answer. There’s the textbook, five-pillars-of-faith answer, or any of the typical answer-the-exam-question rote memorisation answers that born-Muslims are schooled to say.

As if an academic summary can ever touch the heart.

My mind flashed across everything he had chosen to tell me thus far. About the Light, and how he came to accept the Light as his religion. About the energy of my heart that resembled it.

Travel story 'The Man Who Asked Me the Name of His Religion ' on Muslim travel blog Teja on the Horizon | White out of focus sun in blue sky

I decided, his real question was not curiosity about my religion. He wanted to know the name of his religion. He was hoping that I have the same one.

But I don’t know that, and I’m impartial enough not to assume.

Trying to be a faithful Messenger

In that split second I had to decide if I could answer the spoken question, while also giving him the answer to what he really wanted. I had to work within the constraint of our mutually limited Spanish and English, and bearing in mind that I was leaving soon (if the transfer van ever came, that is!). There would not be time for complicated discussions.

Fortunately, this was an easier task than the question Belle had asked me in the Maldives. For there were only two things that every messenger of my faith had brought, consistently.

…all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds – shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.


My religion, and maybe his.

“I am a Muslim,” I began. He showed no signs of recognising what that was. He made a gesture for me to say more.

God is the light, I continued. ‘The Light’ is literally one of the 99 names of God that He gave Himself in the Qur’an. R- agreed readily. Right, that’s one.

Then, I told him that Muslims believe that time runs onward, moving one hand from the other to mime the unfolding of time. But at the very end it rolls up, and crunches to a point. The hand came all the way back. And at this time, safety is with the Light. He assented, again. No questions, no disagreements. Well, that’s two for two.

And that’s all we realistically had time for.

I saw no need to tell him to do what he clearly already does – live his whole life around his submission to the Light, doing good deeds. For all I know, he might be in better standing with God than I am.

R- looked satisfied. He smiled happily, and was contented. Contemplating me for a while longer, he began to rise to continue with his chores.

Before he did, however, he assured me once more that it will be ok, even though my transport was late. He told me with perfect certainty, that the Energy was going to take care of it.

I was still doubtful, because the transfer was really late now. But his conviction was infectious, and I waited in peace.

And he was right.


*What I mean is, G- knew what I was doing, and knew that it was considerate not to be distracting around someone in prayer. G- was older and had more world experience than the younger girls, who just ignored me at prayer (which suited me just fine as well). I did not experience any Islamophobia throughout my time in Chile.

**The full verse is: Verily, those who have attained to [this] faith, as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians – all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds – shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.

Carbon offset information to Atacama Desert, Chile

I went to Atacama Desert as part of a longer journey around the world. Visiting Atacama Desert specifically, assuming return flights from Kuala Lumpur to Calama via Sydney and Santiago, produces carbon emissions of approximately 15,383 lbs CO2e. It costs about $77 to offset this. 

Travel story 'The Man Who Asked Me the Name of His Religion' on Muslim travel blog Teja on the Horizon | Sunlight streaming down a natural rock skylight in the Rainbow Valley

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.