PHILADELPHIA (AP) — It took 194 days and 12 border crossings, but a family from Argentina on a papal pilgrimage has arrived in Philadelphia after a 13,000-mile trip in an old Volkswagen van.
It has been the trip of a lifetime for Catire Walker and Noel Zemborain, who quit their respective jobs in food service and marketing to lead their four children on an unforgettable tour of the Americas.
Their destination: The World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, a Vatican-sponsored conference designed to strengthen family bonds. Pope Francis will close the event at a Saturday night festival and celebrate a public Mass the following day.
"I think this kind of meeting shares the same spirit we want our journey to have — to meet other families, to know other families," Zemborain said. "The (World Meeting) slogan is 'The Family Fully Alive,' and that's how we feel as a family."
They stayed with dozens of host families, did lots of sightseeing and documented the trip online. Memorable encounters include suspicious police in Ecuador who threatened to cut into the van's roof to check for contraband; celebrating Walker's 41st birthday in Panama; and attending Mass with new friends in New Orleans.
Although the 1980 van named Francisca broke down a few times, guardian angels always seemed to be on hand to fix it.
The hardest part, said Zemborain, was making the decision to go. It not only required using their savings and soliciting donations, but also schooling their children — Cala, 12; Dimas, 8; Mia, 5; and Carmin, 3 — with the help of a distance learning program.
"There were many things that stopped us, many fears," Zemborain said. "We decided it was worth it, to take the risk."
Andrea Blanco and her husband William Cardona hosted the clan a couple of weeks ago in their three-bedroom home in Raleigh, North Carolina. Blanco and Cardona, who work for the Diocese of Raleigh's Hispanic ministry, ran into them again in Philadelphia.
Blanco said the family embodies church teachings.
"They are spending and enjoying every single moment in their life as God wants us to be," Blanco said. "Just go and pack and live as a family - shared values and virtues."
Zemborain, Walker and the kids plan to continue traveling until November, when they will fly home from Miami. They were going to send the van by ship, but then a relative volunteered to drive it back to Buenos Aires from Florida.
That will surely be a challenge. Francisca broke down 30 miles outside Philadelphia on Sunday, temporarily delaying the family's grand arrival. They made it into the City of Brotherly Love on Monday, taking a photo under the city's Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture.
They hope to see Pope Francis in Philadelphia.
"We would love to give him a big hug, but I think it's going to be difficult with so many people and security," Zemborain said with a laugh. "But we will participate and share the joy of being here with him — at a distance."
Follow Kathy Matheson at www.twitter.com/kmatheson