LIFESTYLE

Argentinian family hops into an 80s van, drives 11K miles to come see the pope

Few would say that squeezing four children and two adults into an old, loud Volkswagen minibus would make for a magical journey. But for Argentinians Catire Walker and his wife Noël Zemborain it was a cherished dream that finally materialized thanks to their most famous countryman – Pope Francis.

After quitting their jobs, the couple piled their four kids into a 1960s van in March and set on a six-month journey through South America and Central America to see the pope at the World Meeting of Families next month in Philadelphia. They will will finally cross the U.S. border next week. 

“My husband and I used to dream of making a very long trip to get to know people and places,” said the 39-year-old mother, who works in communications and marketing. “We always thought we would make the dream come true when [the kids] were in college,” she told Fox News Latino, “but last year we decided to really make this project real and we decided to transform it into a family experience,” she said.

Out in Los Angeles, the Alvarez family has similar plans. Justin Alvarez, his wife and their eight children will travel three weeks in an RV with the World Meeting of Families as final destination. Alvarez, an attorney who works long hours and rarely takes more than a few days off, said the event hosted by Pope Francis opened their eyes to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Our oldest is going into high school,” he said. “We are starting to pay attention [to the fact] that time with the whole family is limited. If we don’t grab it when the moment offers it, we’ll miss it.”

He hopes the World Meeting of Families – an event held by the Catholic Church every three years since 1994 – will resonate with his children. This year it will be four days of worship, discussion groups and activities for children, including making Pope puppets and bowling with visiting bishops.

“We do hope [Catholicism] permeates their life in a routine way,” Alvarez told FNL. “It is already a natural part of them and the family. Certainly this [trip] should augment that, support that."

Pope Francis is scheduled to attend the meeting on Saturday Sept. 26 and Sunday Sept. 27 and is expected to say Mass both days.

“This is the first time we attend this family meeting,” said Zemborain, who pulled their children out of school for the year to make it all possible. “For us, the most important part is the trip toward it,” she said.

They’ve been traveling since early March, enjoying the hospitality of friends and friends of friends and also dealing with unexpected delays. For example, they had a nearly month-long layover in Guatemala because of – wouldn’t you know it? – the Volkswagen Kombi minibus. 

The couple said they chose the nearly 50-year-old vehicle because an RV was out of their budget and the Kombi has space for three people to sleep in the van at a time. They also figured the engine is relatively easy to fix and would be familiar to mechanics in the countries along the way.

“It’s become a member of our family,” Zemborain said of their car, which they have christened "Francisca," in honor of the pope. The children have decorated their beloved bus with flags from each country they’ve crossed.

"Francisca" first conked out in northern Chile — torrential rains and mud proved too much for it. In El Salvador, the car came to a halt at a gas station where armed guards with intimidating weapons warned the family to leave. Since they couldn’t, the guards allowed them to sleep behind the gas station and the family opted to stay in the safety of Francisca and sleep “Tetris-style,” according to Zemborain. But in Guatemala, Francisca stalled again. It took weeks to get the car going. Without a hint of frustration, Noël serenely accepts the pitfalls and says the trip has allowed them to get closer to their faith.

“In many ways, we are like losing control and letting the Providence appear and new friends appear,” said .

The family is documenting their journey through a Twitter account, on Facebook and with a blog, America en Familia, where they also solicit help when they need it – they said they count themselves fortunate to have found samaritans willing to help fund their trip.

Meanwhile, for the Alvarez family, an RV made more sense than other transportation.

“We’ve got a big family,” Alvarez explained, while he and his family were taking the RV on a test run to Sacramento. “To fly all of us will cost as much as taking the RV out there.”

Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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