Give Me Some Skin

It can get lonely on the road less traveled.

But sometimes things happen there that remind you it was the right choice for you.

I took the photo below in 2005 in India, on a dirt road on the outskirts of Bangalore, quite literally and figuratively on a road less traveled.

Just weeks before the photo, I had quit my cushy corporate job in Philadelphia to try making a living full-time with my volunteer-travel business called “Cosmic Volunteers.”

I was in Bangalore as a new solo entrepreneur, visiting an unfamiliar city to meet business partners and volunteering placements for future clients — wondering if I could find enough of the latter to pay my bills.

One of my new Indian Coordinators was hosting a party at his farmhouse on the outskirts of Bangalore for his local staff and foreign volunteers. He invited me and I accepted.

After a couple hours at the party, my social energy was spent. So I left the party for some fresh air — and ended up walking a while on an empty dirt road. No lighting except the moon. Out of the darkness, I nearly walked right into the gentleman in the photo; or maybe he into me? Anyway we scared the hell out of each other. He didn’t know what to make of me, looked at me as if I were a space alien.

We quickly discovered that we didn’t share a common language. But we stood there for 20 minutes and learned a lot about each other’s lives and families — gesturing and doing charades the entire time. I believe that he was coming home from working on a farm. He was quite amiable. He even invited me to his little shack of a home for a drink. I gladly accepted and had a quick drink of some strong local spirits.

Of course out on the road I had immediately noticed his skin discoloration. It would be years though before I researched the exact name and nature of the condition. It’s called vitiligo, and it’s most prevalent in the Indian population. As this article explains, it’s not contagious, painful, itchy or dangerous. It just gives a person white patches on the skin.

Having a skin condition myself, I immediately empathized with this man. I was born with a condition called Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB) which is a rare genetic skin disorder that causes the skin to be very fragile, leading to severe blistering — inside and outside the body.

If you ever see my elbows or knees, you’ll notice major scarring from the blisters and cuts I used to get weekly as a kid. My skin in those areas is as white as the man’s hand in the photo. And if you serve me food that’s really temperature-hot, I’ll have to wait until it’s almost room temp; if not, the inside of my mouth will get scorched and become raw from the heat.

In terms of other people with EB though, I got off easy. I got only the simplex form of EB. Some newborns have such severe cases of EB that they die at childbirth while going through the birth canal. (The non-profit “Debra of America” advocates for EB, by the way).

Anyway, the photo above is one of my all-time favorites. Part of it was our nice chat and the kinship from our respective skin diseases.

But the next day, when I really looked at the photo — I noticed the curious expression on his face. To me it’s a combination of surprise (even though I got his permission before snapping), with a deep humility and perhaps even dignity in his pose. He’s not even trying to hide his skin condition. In fact his hand is front and center.

It’s certainly a photo and an encounter that I’ll always think fondly of. A real moment on the road less traveled.

(P.S. If anyone in Bangalore knows this gentleman, have him get in touch with me. I’d love to send him a printed copy of the photo.)