Family Driving from Argentina to U.S. for Pope Francis Says Virgin Mary – and Facebook – Have Watched Over Them

The Walker family has driven 13,000 miles through 13 countries in a 1980 VW bus, oftentimes relying on the kindness of strangers

Photo: No l Zemborain

In many ways, this is a typical Catholic family, excited to attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia later this month – an event that includes a visit by Pope Francis.

Yet their journey to get there is unlike any other.

On March 11, Noël Zemborain, her husband, Catire Walker, and their four young children left their home in Argentina in a 35-year-old VW bus to drive some 13,000 miles to Philadelphia. (They had to fly from Colombia to Panama, and the VW bus was transported over by boat.)

“We are very fond of Pope Francis. He’s very supportive of families,” Zemborain told PEOPLE last week as the family drove through Georgia. “He’s a person that you could imagine being in a bar and talking to him like a friend. We are very happy he will be there and that we can hear his word.”

This journey began about a year ago, when Zemborain and Walker were talking about their dream of taking a very long trip when the kids – Cala, 12, Dimas, 8, Mia, 5, and Carmin, 3 – were older.

“Then we said, ‘Why not do it now?’ ” Zemborain said. “Let’s do a family road trip.” Once they found out that the World Meeting of Families was taking place in Philadelphia from Sept. 26 to 27, their journey’s path unfolded.

“It was like everything fell into place,” said Zemborain. “We knew where we had to go.”

Zemborain, 39, a marketing and communications professional, and Walker, 41, a food services director, would quit their jobs and use their life savings to finance the journey. This included buying a 1980 Volkswagen Kombi Microbus they call Francisca, in honor of Pope Francis.

They planned on staying with other families along the way, friends or friends of friends, or complete strangers they sometimes met through Facebook.

“At first our friends said, ‘You’re crazy, you’re insane with small children,’ ” Zemborain said with a laugh.

“The most difficult thing was to decide to do it,” she said. “It was difficult at the beginning. We were afraid of many things – a family with kids, we quit our jobs. But once we left it was so, so great. We felt free and we are enjoying the trip so much. It is way beyond our expectations.”

The family has indeed slept in the homes of families and strangers, in the Kombi, in their tent or in rectories. To pass the hours inside the VW bus, the kids sleep, make origami or play games they invent. As well-behaved as the brood is, most days of the journey the kids will ask what every child asks on a family trip: Are we there yet? “But we stop a lot,” Zemborain says. “We don’t drive every day.”

On Aug. 30, the family entered its 13th country, tweeting from Texas: “United States here we are.” Zemborain said she is certain that the Virgin Mary is accompanying her family on their adventures.

“We don’t feel all alone,” she said. “Many things have happened to us and there is always a helping hand when we need it. You may say it is a coincidence, but so many things happened, we feel we are being taken care of.”

There was the time when the Kombi broke down in the middle of the night in a remote area of El Salvador, an area they were told was not safe. Yet the breakdown happened near a gas station. “It was like an oasis in the middle of the desert,” Zemborain said.

The next day, through the help of someone who hooked them up to WiFi, and pleas for help via Facebook, two mechanics showed up to fix their bus – free of charge. “Everything,” she said, “was taken care of.”

Then there was the time, while driving through the Atacama Desert in Chile, when the Kombi broke down in the middle of mudslides that devastated the area.

“We were on the outskirts of a city and they were in a very difficult situation. Who would want to help us?” Zemborain said. “And a lady appeared, out of nowhere, she was helping the nuns to paint the church of the convent. Her name was Angela – that is angel in English.”

“She immediately called a mechanic, we spent a week with her and her family, and we helped others and then continued.”

With Philly just a few tanks of gas away, Zemborain has mixed feelings. “We are excited but a bit sad,” she said of the journey’s end. After Philadelphia, the Walkers will make their way to Florida, and fly back to Argentina in November. Zemborain’s brother is driving the Kombi back to Argentina.

It’s not likely the family will meet the Pope Francis when he addresses the World Meeting of Families. But to Zemborain, that wasn’t even the point. “We love the pope but it’s a family trip,” she said. “It’s about sharing with other families, of making a journey together.”

The family’s adventures are documented in photos, videos and words on social media: on Twitter @americayfamilia, a website, Facebook, and Indiegogo, where they seek donations to help fund the trip.

Related Articles