In 1986 , at the age of 21 years I have been , I backpacked  first time by bus and trains from Guatemala to Peru on my own. In Guatemala I stayed with a family in the former capital of Antigua to supplement my Spanish for some days before I started traveling.

Antigua is surrounded by formerly active, impressive large and small volcanoes. For the most part gone, because of the volcanic origin of Guatemala however there is still an active volcano scene. On my last Sunday before my onward journey I was on photographic mission, and kept looking for a good location to photograph the "Volcan de Agua" in the evening light. For the ideal place I had to walk up a very steep, sandy small mountain. At each step, I felt sliding back two steps instead. It was boiling hot and very tiring - even for me as a 21, fit athlete ( by that time :-)

I had just screwed the camera on the tripod and set the exposure (then as now, by hand, but still on Kodak Ektachrome slide film in my Nikon), when a  small and cheerful voice in the background called on me:

"Hola Senor, me hace el favor y saque una foto de mi, por favor?"

"Hello sir, would you please so nice and take a picture of me?"

Amazed and surprised I stopped looking through the viewfinder, I turned around and looked into THAT big, warm and open smile.


It was the laughter of a 10 year old boy with the features of a nearly adult man. Pre aged. This boy suffered at a bone metabolic disease; and this could not be affected in the poverty-stricken Guatemala. Life expectancy may be to legal age, if at all. He dragged the same hill as I did. Barefoot and with crutches; without he could not walk. He knew about his illness and that he would not get old. He also he knew that he probably never get an education, a wife, a family or children and never would have a life without pain. He never could play soccer with his friends which he never had because of his illness.

I shot as many pictures as I could. I never tool the pictures of the volcano like I had planned. I talked until sunset to him and about his life. Why does he drags himself up the mountain under pain every weekend to beg money from some tourists. Some money for himself and some for his family. He did not wanted them to be a burden even more, and at least do what he could. I have fought all the time with tears as I this brave little guy told his story without any complaint.

One of the encounters that come towards you from travellin´the world.

I gave him all my  $ 70 of my money which I had with me. When we parted he gave me the address of his family and said to me: "Me hicistes 16 photos". "You've taken 16 pictures of me"

He had not  asked me a single time for money.

It was a good day for Joel. For me, that day changed my life.

That next day I had to travel on  to Costa Rica and Panama, and due to that could not see him again. Back in Germany I developed the film. There were exactly 16 pictures of Joel on it.

I made the fairest prints from all images in multiple sizes and sent the pictures to his family via airmail . Along with money for his medical drugs. The pictures arrived, his pleasure was huge. The included money disappeared regularly within corrupt border officials by that time.

Eventually, the mail came back unopened. I could not find Joel anymore.
Today, from a medical point of view,  Joel's presumably dead for many years by now .

His body died  for  the poverty of this people, his country, his family.
 Joel simply had to die for destiny. His brave little heart and his smile never did.

His laughter lives and stayed alive since that day. Deep down inside of me. In the hearts of children and people I meet in this world.
And in my task to bring back at least some of the justiice and equal oppurtunities to children like Joel and their families.  Thus ist the  Ride-of-Smiles therefore also dedicateted  the countless, here unnamed volunteers of our fundraising partners. Who often struggle at the risk of their own lives and their health in their daily  commitment, just to bring  that smile back into the world, that the little Joel left to me as his heritage.

Thats what the Ride-of-Smiles is all about.

For Joels smile he would give to all of us as a present from his heart.

This trip is dedicated to you,  little man from Guatemala.

Thank you. For your wonderful, unique warmhearted smile .

For your courage and the braveheart in you.

Maybe you are looking from above or somewhere else....and smile on us :-)

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GREAT JOB ! Lächelnd

DANKE  !!!

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Ride Of Smiles - 50.000 miles