DURHAM, N.C. —The road trip through 13 countries, chugging along the highway in a cramped Volkswagen bus, began on a whim.

Like many parents, Noël Zemborain and Alfredo “Catire” Walker juggled family duties and demanding jobs that left them with disappointingly short weekends, packed with youth sports and other activities for their four children.

He was an operations manager for a food and beverage company in Buenos Aires. She worked as a marketing and communications consultant for San Andres University. The couple dreamed of taking an extended vacation, years from now, after their kids were grown and gone.

But then they heard that Pope Francis, a fellow Argentine, would visit the U.S. city of Philadelphia in September, and that he would address a World Meeting of Families held there by the Catholic Church. A desire to take time as a family — a really big chunk of time — and to show their kids places that they’d only read about in books began to take hold.

The result was a most unorthodox family vacation, which they dubbed “America en Familia”: six months and 13,000 miles packed into the 35-year-old bus, relying on the kindness of strangers and their own good humor when the vehicle broke down, which happened frequently as they rolled through South and Central America, Mexico and the southern United States.

The family’s Catholic beliefs — which Noël describes as being more about trying to be a better person than about church rituals — were a driving force. Their faith in whether they’d make it to their destination rose and fell as the van lurched forward.

“This was a trip of hope,” Noël said last week, traveling through North Carolina.

They are due to arrive in Philadelphia on Tuesday, joining thousands of other Catholic families to celebrate shared values of love, faith and togetherness, and to await the pope’s weekend arrival.

Risk, and reward

Nerves were fraying inside the sputtering turquoise-and-white bus one recent morning as the family headed for Durham. Carmín, 3, fought with Dimas, 8, for a toy. Mia, 5, left her seat and climbed on top of a table for a better view of the dispute.

“Don’t do that!” Noël said over the engine’s rattle, whipping around from the front passenger’s seat to order Mia back into place. Cala, 12, stayed buried in her book.

But there were moments of harmony, too, as there had been throughout the journey: singing inside the bus, swimming with giant turtles, a hike up Machu Picchu, meals with newfound friends who suddenly felt like family.

The trip — documented by Noël in a blog that has drawn nearly 103,000 visits so far — has turned the Walkers into minor celebrities among Spanish-speaking Catholics in the United States and Latin America. Masses were organized in their honor. Messages from around the world cheered them on. Often, when the van rolled into a new village, bearing an “America en Familia” emblem and stickers representing the flags of each country they had visited, the Walkers were greeted by locals offering warm hugs and excited questions.

“We were not conscious that this would generate all of this attention,” Noël said. “For us, it’s been a transformative experience.”

There were a host of reasons not to go forward. For one, they didn’t have enough money to finance the venture. It meant leaving their jobs, breaking the lease on their home, dipping into savings and uprooting the children from school.

But, as they continued to discuss the idea, Catire said, the frustrations they felt over a mundane routine of long work days and seemingly never enough time with their growing children outweighed those concerns.

Plus, they wanted their kids to understand early in life that the world can be more rewarding when you’re taking risks.

“We reached a moment when it became inevitable that it would happen,” Catire said. “What we want to leave our kids with is for them to learn very clearly, that if you have a dream, don’t let anybody tell you that it can’t be done.”

As far as plans for work go when they return to Argentina, “We still don’t know,” he said, smiling at the thought.

“We’ll look for work, but I don’t know if we’ll succeed, if we’ll find something. No idea.”

‘Many good people’

The family set out in March, after enrolling the children in online courses, cobbling together some money from a small fundraising campaign and buying the van, which they dubbed “Francisca” in honor of the pope.

And, on that sunny first day? Francisca stalled about 300 miles from their home — setting a pattern of mechanical failures and wrong turns that at times steered the family into dangerous predicaments but more often led them to encounters with random people who turned out to be eager to assist.

In a village in Chile, they had run out of local currency and were nearly out of gas. Then the owner of a grocery store who learned of their destination handed them a wad of bills.

“So you can go a few kilometers extra,” the man said, according to one of Noël’s blog entries.

Again and again, an increasingly travel-weary Francisca would break down, only to be revived by amateur mechanics who responded to urgent pleas for help on the family’s Facebook page or whom they’d met by chance through newly acquired friends.

Of particular help were a network of fellow owners of the iconic VW vans, which are known as “kombis” in Latin America. Noël learned about the network online, and she and her husband said its members became another type of family.

“There are many good people on the road,” Catire marveled. “Always, somebody appeared, offering a place to sleep, to help us with the kombi or to resolve something else.”

In between, the Walkers drove through the soaring Latin American countryside, the van straining up mountain roads and gliding along the Pacific Ocean coastline.

In Peru, they swam with giant sea turtles who had migrated from the nearby Galapagos Islands. Catire and his two eldest children hiked up Machu Picchu. In Ecuador, the family wandered through a butterfly sanctuary in the Mindo Valley bursting with fluttering multi-colored wings.

They also witnessed some of the region’s despair; unmarked roadside graves, the signs of the illegal drug trade in some countries; and, always, relentless poverty.

There was the welcoming desert town in Chile — Copiapó — that was buried in mud after a punishing storm. Rain was still falling as the family arrived to stay with a group of Dominican Order nuns, the van faltering until it finally gave out in front of the convent.

With the roads shut down and no electricity working, Catire and Noël decided to stay in town for four days to help residents dig their community out of the muck. A family that took them in for a couple of nights found them a local mechanic who got Francisca running again.

In Colombia, the family wandered into a mosquito-ridden wooded area near a beach they wanted to visit. They saw a man in military fatigues and, assuming he was a police officer, asked for directions. The man raised a large, serrated knife and ominously warned them away.

“My heart dropped,” Noël said, adding that they quickly left.

Land of plenty

After a two-week delay in Guatemala — where political signs condemned government corruption and Francisca broke down yet again — the family raced through Mexico. They crossed the Texas border near Laredo this month.

Their main impression of the United States, after days of driving along wide, smooth roads past vast suburban neighborhoods, is one of boundless opportunity — the kind that can be elusive in Latin America.

“You notice the economic difference the minute you cross the border,” Noël said.

She counted as among her favorite U.S. experiences so far a stop in New Orleans, where family members tasted their first beignets, watched street musicians perform and slept at the stately wood-paneled house of yet another family they’d met on the road.

Regardless of culture or economic status, “the families we’ve stayed with, they’re no different,” Noël said. “Many people told us, the United States will be different, the people will be colder, less trusting. But for us it has gone very well.”

They arrived in North Carolina a bit exhausted but also eager to take in their surroundings. Duke University, brimming with students reading or lounging in the sun, gave the Walker children a glimpse of their possible futures.

Dimas, who had climbed Machu Picchu, studied one student trying his skills on a rock climbing wall inside the school gym.
Cala, who swims competitively in Argentina, watched the university swim team practice, gliding through a glistening, Olympic-sized pool.

Mia drank in the school’s majestic architecture, then announced to no one in particular: “When I’m older, I want to come and study here.”

Later in the day, just outside Raleigh, the van rolled into the parking lot of St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church, where a Mass was planned in the family’s honor. They were promptly surrounded by mostly Mexican immigrant parishioners who held up cellphones to take pictures of the Argentinian pilgrims.

“They are a blessing,” gushed Patricia Echevarria, lamenting how she couldn’t take extra time off of work to make the trip to Philadelphia herself.

After staying with yet another family that had been inspired by their journey, the Walkers headed back out on the road. Their next stop would be Washington. After that, Philadelphia, where they hope to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis.

When they’re ready to return home, the family will drive to Miami, and board a plane to Buenos Aires, where the rest of their lives await.

As for Francisca? Noël’s brother Iñaki — 24 years old and recently graduated from college — will be on hand in Miami with three friends to guide her back to Argentina.

Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.

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