Dear Ezra and Lian,

In December, 1999, it was between the First and Second Intifada. There was peace in Israel and Palestine. The Palestinian Authority especially were making an extra effort to welcome tourists for the new millennium celebrations. There were big plans for Christmas Eve programs in Bethlehem.

It was a special time. I feel privileged to have been there at that time. There were tens of thousands of foreign tourists. Every day we made new friends and would hang out and do stuff together; especially us backpackers. One day, a Buddhist friend from the U.K. and I decided we should visit Hebron. We didn’t take an Israeli Egged bus. We took a Palestinian bus leaving from the Damascus Gate.

The bus dropped us off in the centre of Hebron. We set out for the Cave of the Patriarchs, one mile away. As we walked along the street, there were two young men watching us. As we approached, one of them, pulled out a handgun and pointed it at me. I did a bit of stutter step, but I kept walking.

Strangely, the two guys never said anything. They never motioned with the gun for me to stop or to raise my hands. So I didn’t. I maintained an expressionless eye contact. I never said anything or gave any gestures of any kind. But I kept on walking. I don’t think my friend saw the gun. We never talked about it. After about 30 second of walking, these guys were now about 50 feet away from me, so I turned my head and looked straight ahead. After about a minute, I let out a sigh of relief as I figured they were too far away to shoot me now. Since I can still walk now, you’ve probably guessed that they did never fired a shot at me.

About 10 minutes later we arrived at the Cave of the Patriarchs. There was a large unit of Israeli soldiers there (about 30). They provided security for this famous site. They were completely kitted out with machine guns, grenade launchers, mortars, automatic rifles, armoured personnel carriers and jeeps. They were doing running drills carrying their weapons. My friend wanted pictures with them. I took photos of him hugging young, smiling Israeli soldiers or they would pretend to be shooting him. After having a Palestinian pull a gun on me earlier, I figured I didn’t want the picture in my camera. Besides, I never used to be much for pictures.

When we went back to Jerusalem, we ended up on a bullet proof glass, tour bus. We left right from the Cave of the Patriarchs. That seemed the better way to go.

Now your Grandpa in Mizoram survived an entire career as a police officer in India. I know he experienced more dangerous things than this. I’m sure he could give you some great professional advice about staying safe. He was also the State of Maharashtra Police Pistol shooting champion. All the same, here’s an amateur’s take on things.

I had spent about two weeks enduring Palestinian violence. I had been hit with stones flung from slingshots (it hurts a lot). I had seen girls get hit and cry their eyes out with the pain. I had seen a huge fight between UN peacekeepers and Palestinians at the Damascus Gate (they were provoked by the so-called peacekeepers.) I had seen Palestinian men shout violently at young women for wearing shorts or eating during Ramadan. By the time, I arrived in Hebron, without even realizing it, I was now resisting their authority to order people around. If you point a gun at me, I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of watching me easily surrender to your will. You are going to have to order me to stop and raise my hands. You want to rob me? Walk over here and take my wallet. I won’t stop you.

It was stupid, but this is why young men do stupid stuff and get themselves shot. Push a man around long enough and he will resist. Imagine if you lived in a place where you spent your whole life like that. You won’t easily cooperate with whoever is holding the gun.

It was even more foolhardy for those two young guys to point that gun at me. There were 30 Israeli soldiers eager, trained and completely outfitted to kill them. They just needed a good excuse. Pointing a gun at an unarmed tourist would be more than enough. Young men marking territory and claiming authority over the actions of others is another good way to get shot. There’s always a bigger bully with a bigger gun.

I spent my teen years and big chunks of my twenties sleeping in a bed with a .22 rifle and a 30 gauge shotgun beside or under it. (Cue the dueling banjos music.) Strangely I never shot those firearms or any other gun. Killing rabid or nuisance animals was grandpa’s job. My grandpas and uncles hunted a lot. I’m not afraid of them, but firearms are dangerous tools. I remember in grade school, looking at a schoolmate’s leg that had just had a .22 bullet pulled out. He got shot by a hunter carelessly firing into the air. That sort of thing happens around guns. Geography affects violence. It doesn’t happen randomly. Our old neighbourhood here in Pickering had become a much more violent and dangerous place than where we live now. Our family had no reasons to justify us to keep living there. When we had finally come to accept that fact, we moved. Hebron is one of those violent places in the world. I thought it temporarily had become peaceful enough to make a trip there worthwhile. I was wrong. I ticked a few things off my sightseeing list, but it wasn’t worth the risk.

Those who live by sword tend to die by sword, or at least see more death than usual. Those who carry firearms make themselves targets for violence. Often the good done by being a police officer justifies the accompanying risk. Before you decide to bear arms, think long and hard whether what you are doing is worth the risk.

My whole encounter in Hebron involved two young men reading each other’s faces and doing a risk assessment. We listened to the other’s body language and heard no real threat. It ended well because we correctly assumed that the other posed no risk to body or ego. I never yelled for help. He never shot. We both walked away alive. Ezra, buddy, because of your autism, this will be extremely difficult for you. Listening to non-verbal communication for many people with ASD is practically impossible. Atypically, you do have some ability doing this. However, don’t let this fool you into believing you will be good at in a life or death situation. Every year many non-threatening people get killed because their risk assessments get botched and communication breaks down. It’s not even easy for trained professionals. It’s much more difficult for amateurs.

There are two main strategies, Ezra, you need to use to compensate. First, you need to use your words. You need to vocalize the words, “I’m not a threat. I have autism.” Repeat it often. Someone may misinterpret your actions as a threat or a challenge. You need to say it out loud that because of your autism, you are not challenging them. Even teachers and their aides need to hear it. You are not being oppositional or confrontational. You just need some extra understanding.

Second, don’t go to places like Hebron, unless there’s some great purpose for you there. Taking a few pictures doesn’t count as a great purpose. It is far easier to avoid complicated or dangerous situations than it is to get out of them.

This letter is already too long. I will stop now.






Alone in the Sinai desert


Dear Ezra and Lian;

Do not be afraid.

I was all alone at a crossroads in the Sinai desert. I was watching the sun getting ready to set. 4 hours ago, this was amazingly beautiful. Now it was a concern. This was not supposed to have happened. I was trying to figure out my options. Do I stay here by the road waiting for any vehicle to come by or do I wander off to the hills for some protection? After dark, what is more dangerous this road or this desert? I had given up hope that anybody was going to be heading west towards St. Catherine’s Monastery. I was in a place where tourists like me are the targets of kidnappings, shootings and bombings. I was there all alone. I was far from police stations or army outposts or anyone. I hadn’t seen a vehicle in hours. I had no phone. No friends or family knew where I was or where I was going. I had no idea if this crossroads was monitored. I had no idea what was coming next.

That moment was the result of a bunch of bad advice I took and bad decisions I made. I kept pushing ahead to stay on my travel plan. I should have learned from all my little mistakes that day and just stayed in Taba.

Then I saw a car coming in the distance. I already had cash out in my hand. Either I was paying for a ride or I was handing it over in a robbery anyways. The car stopped beside me. A young man rolled down his window. I asked him if I paid him if he would take me to St. Catherine’s Monastery. He wanted twice what I was offering (pretty close to what the taxi drivers all the way back in Taba wanted). I had no bargaining position or cause for complaint. I didn’t even wait for the trip to start. I took out the money and handed it over. I threw in my big backpack in the backseat. I jumped in the passenger seat.

I enjoyed the amazing scenery. The reds, purples and browns of the sandstone mountains are beautiful as the sun goes down. As it got dark, we narrowly missed hitting a wandering camel. After a couple of hours, I arrived safe and sound at one of the world’s oldest Christian monasteries. The next morning, I, along with hundreds of tourists and pilgrims hiked to the top of Mt. Sinai; a possible location of the Biblical Mount Sinai. We watched the sun rise. It was really, really cool. Looking back though, it wasn’t worth the risks that I took to get there. The sun has risen about 5000 times since I saw that sunrise. That mountain will be there tomorrow.

I used to keep risky, stupid stuff like this a secret. I never wanted your Grandma to find out, so I wouldn’t tell anybody at all. She would literally get sick with worry when I travelled. I figured I would put her in the hospital for real if she ever knew half of my stories. (I’m not exaggerating.) A couple months ago, I told her a few things like this. Now since she is starting to suffer dementia, she can’t remember our names very well. She also can’t really appreciate danger. All she did was pat me on the knee and say, “We still love you Tim” or start rambling about something that didn’t make sense. I can tell you these stories now. Hopefully you learn a thing or two. If you make mistakes, make your own. Please don’t repeat mine. Still, don’t tell Grandma about it, but please tell me.

Most times we don’t pay for our mistakes. Any low budget world traveller survives on the kindness of strangers. Most people in the world are not out to get you. However, it doesn’t really matter. It only takes a few people willing to do bad things to make a real big mess of things. Right now, the Sinai is not a place to be hitchhiking to see a sunset. I’ve done a few brave things for stuff that really does matter. I hope if my future letters do anything, it is that they help give you the courage to do the right thing, especially when it is difficult and when it counts.