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Image: Zapp family
Fame Pictures
Herman and Candelaria Zapp with their four children, from left: Paloma, 3; Pampa, 8; Wallaby, 1; and Tehue, 5.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/6/2011 6:39:03 PM ET 2011-04-06T22:39:03

Imagine traveling around the world with your family, by car, for 11 years straight.

For some it would be like a dream come true. For others, it would get old pretty quickly.

But Herman and Candelaria Zapp, along with their four children — all born on the road — are living the dream.

The Zapps are childhood sweethearts; they met when she was 8 and he was 10. The couple spent their first few years of married life putting down roots in Argentina, where Herman had his own computer and telephone IT company and they had a nice house with a swimming pool.

“Our family was happy with us. We had it all,” said Herman Zapp.

But something was missing: that around-the-world trip they had talked about while courting — and children. So, the couple set out in 2000 on a pre-baby road trip from Buenos Aires to Alaska.

“We were thinking if we have kids, we will never be able to travel. So we set a day to leave for Alaska and [planned to] have our kids when we come back,” Zapp said.

Never ending road trip
They didn’t get much support.

“Our family was saying that we wouldn’t make it," Zapp said. "The most optimistic were giving us a week’s journey. No more.”

Not only did the couple complete their nearly 44,000-mile initial journey, but they decided to keep going.

Since then, they’ve been to more than two dozen countries and traveled at least 145,000 miles.

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Each of their four children was born in a different country: Pampa, 8, in the United States; Tehue, 5, in Argentina; Paloma, 3, in Canada; and little Wallaby, 1, in Australia.

The Zapps homeschool their kids but also say the experiences they get are incredibly educational. “Imagine taking your kids and watching the space shuttle take off, looking at polar bears in Alaska, seeing kangaroos in Australia and learning to speak the language of the country you’re in," Zapp said. “We call it worldwide schooling.”

Together, the Zapp family has traveled across Japan, Korea, Canada and New Zealand. They spent a year in Australia, 13 months in the United States and most recently visited Brunei and Malaysia. Along the way, they’ve had visas denied, close-calls with robbers and been served meals that included monkey and live ants.

Vote: What's the ideal time frame for a family road trip? (on this page)

Travel writer Pauline Frommer, the daughter of travel guidebook guru Arthur Frommer, has never met the Zapps but approves of their “worldwide schooling” approach to education. “My parents took me on the road at the age of 4 months,” said Frommer. “There's no better education than seeing the world. You learn there are many, many ways to conduct one's life, all of them valid.”

Grandpa makes it possible
Timetables and schedules don’t figure into the Zapps' plans. “It depends mostly on what a place has to show,” explained Zapp.

Image: Zapp family vehicle
Courtesy Zapp family
On the Zapp family's never-ending road trip, the car serves as tent, home, school, kitchen and transportation.

It also depends on where their car can take them.

For their entire 11-year adventure, the Zapps have been traveling in a 1928 Detroit-made Graham Paige (Model 610). They must stay away from highways because the car can't go faster than 40 miles per hour.

Part tent, part kitchen, part schoolhouse and part rolling apartment, the car is definitely also a part of the family.

Story: Fine dining in rugged Big Bend National Park

“We call the car ‘Macondo Cambalache.’ He — in Spanish a car is ‘he’ — has a first name and last name,” explained Zapp. Macondo refers to the fictional town Colombian Nobel Prize winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez described in his book “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” “Cambalache is the name of a Tango song in Argentina. But, between us, when we salute the car and ask him to start or to keep going even with that funny noise, we call him Grandpa.”

While driving from one place to another, the Zapps do what many other families do: They sing, play games and listen to music. “Mostly everything is in Spanish, but we also sing ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm,’ ‘The Itsy Bitsy Spider’ and ‘We will Rock You,’ by Queen,” said Zapp.

Beyond transportation, "Grandpa" has come in handy in other ways. “I am not a mechanic at all, but every time we get a breakdown we get a new friend,” said Zapp. “Once we broke down in Puebla, a beautiful city in Mexico. When I opened the hood someone showed up right away and told me about a car museum nearby. We went there and they disassembled a car on exhibit to give us the part.”

Not only did the museum not charge for that part, but the town organized a fiesta for the Zapps, complete with a mariachi band and plenty of food. “Thank God we broke down,” said Zapp. “Otherwise we would miss the chance to have a party!”

Eating when you travel abroad? Look for a long line

The kindness of strangers
Paying for any trip can be a challenge. Funding an 11-year road trip for a family of six seems like it would be impossible. But the Zapps have been able to make it work.

In addition to watercolors painted by Candelaria and framed by Herman, the Zapps wrote and sell a book about their early travels, “Spark Your Dream,” from their car and from their website.

Story: Couple survives (natural) disaster honeymoon

Businesses have offered complimentary services, such as car repair and shipping, and most nights are spent in the home of strangers the family encounters.

Image: Zapp family car
Courtesy Zapp family
In Australia and elsewhere, the Zapps have faced plenty of challenges on the road.

They’ve also received some surprisingly useful gifts.

In Texas, a Model T collector gave the Zapps a box to put under the hood. “We can put our eggs with water in there and in 25 miles we can have soft-boiled eggs. In 35 miles, we’ll have hard-boiled eggs. We cook so many things as we drive. When we smell it’s ready, we stop and have our lunch.”

Most recently, the Zapp family was touring Malaysia and, before that, Brunei. “It’s so easy to get around Brunei,” said Zapp. “You can’t get lost and you’ll bump into the border before you notice that you’ve passed the place you were looking for. Plus, there’s 20-cents-per-liter gasoline!”

When and where will the road end? The Zapps say they intend to keep going, but may take a break in two years when their oldest son, Pampa, turn 10.

Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com, authors the “Stuck at the Airport” blog and is a columnist for USATODAY.com. You can follow her on Twitter .


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Vote: What's the ideal time frame for a family road trip?

Video: Travel with your kids

  1. Closed captioning of: Travel with your kids

    >>> time for today's travel. accessories that make trips with your kids so much fun.

    >> you can listen to, are we there yet, her finger is touching me or you can anti-tans your kids. christina is the editor of "parenting" magazine. parents will be glad to hear about this segment.

    >> there was nothing when i was growing up. you counted cows. now there is so much stuff.

    >> we have a ton of life savers . the first is padding pad. you can slap it down any which way. there is no wrong way. it's got all these pockets inside to stash your wipes and all the stuff you need. it folds up. it's great. beautiful bottle bags from stork sack. they are insulated. they wipe clean and look chic. this is a real fabulous item. it is a bottle that warms itself.

    >> what?

    >> can you imagine?

    >> stop it.

    >> with the press of a button, fill it up, takes a few seconds, you have perfectly warmed milk.

    >> that is genius. you can burn a body if you put it in the microwave.

    >> a perfect, perfect toy from infantino for the car. crinkle toys, a teether to keep the baby quiet in the back seat.

    >> this is the peapod. this is great for a toddler to sleep in. a lot of times you're traveling. you don't no. you don't want to use the krips in the hotel or outside in the beach. this is a great napping area it folds up super easy and a carry handle.

    >> for toddlers in preschool you have this.

    >> we have the even-flo symphony car seat . moms are nervous about the new ap recommendations. they are trying to find a car seat that will accommodate that. this accommodates infants, but goes up to 35 pounds. rear facing and up to 100 forward facing. we have lots more suggestions on parenting.com for seats that meet the new guidelines.

    >> it's heavy to carry around the car seat and lug it.

    >> it is. you want the car seat on the plane for the child. this is the go-go baby. any car seat will go in there.

    >> where are you going?

    >> it looks like luggage.

    >> i like the other way.

    >> you don't put your child in it.

    >> no, no, no. it's great when you get off the plane. you're good to go.

    >> look at this cute stroller.

    >> this is snazzy. it's super light weight. it holds a child up to 50 pounds. it's easy to maneuver and perfect for travel.

    >> games and toys for kids?

    >> we are going to have a snacks cup. the snacks do not fall out. the child can reach their hand in there grab the piece of cereal.

    >> there is plastic on top. it doesn't fall out.

    >> that is great.

    >> otherwise you'll have cheerios everywhere. you find them in your belly button . they're everywhere.

    >> wiki sticks.

    >> what is a wiki stick?

    >> it's a piece of yarn inside a food grade wax. kids can twist them into all different shapes. it doesn't stain, doesn't stick to clothes. this is from one step ahead, a great tray for high chairs and restaurants.

    >> let's move up in age.

    >> we are getting up to a little bit older kids.

    >> cody would not fit in this.

    >> this is the big kid booster from even-flo. at night if they want to read or play in the car, they can see easily. when they get bigger and don't necessarily want the little kid booster look, the back comes right off. this is lots of fun. kid sack. they can take this on the road and they can color. then you throw it in the washing machine, comes out.

    >> color it again.

    >> can be used over and over .

    >> very cute.

    >> aren't these adorable? short stuffs. you can make your own stuffed animals. you don't have to sew at all. it comes with everything you need and assembles with velcro.

    >> very cute.

    >> this is for older kids at the end?

    >> we have lots of great fun stuff for older kids. nintendo 3-ds. it can be adjusted to the child's preference. friendship bracelets.

    >> those are darling.

    >> this is a kit. it's easy to take in the car.

    >> that is adorable.

    >> retro head phones. all. kids want these, not the ear buds. this comes in different colors for boys and girls .

    >> these go in the cars?

    >> no. these are great for camping or bring to grandma. mp-3 players, alarm clocks and lamps.

    >> christina, thank you so much.

    >> tons of stuff.

    >> up next, engagement chicken.

    >>> time to take you into today's kitchen. recipes designed to get you what you want.

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