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