If you go on Google Maps and ask for driving directions from San Francisco to Salvador, Brazil, you get a discouraging response: "Sorry, we could not calculate directions from "San Francisco, CA" to "Salvador, Bahia, Brazil."
But that didn’t stop Ben Oude Kamphuis, a hardcore Dutch soccer fan and Hulk Hogan look-alike, from hopping into his orange 1955 Chevy truck, Old Nellie, and going on the road trip of a lifetime to the World Cup.
“The whole experience has been mind-blowing,” Oude Kamphuis, 52, told me via Skype recently from a pit stop in Urcos, Peru. “It all started four years ago when the Dutch lost in the [World Cup] final to Spain. That was the third time I cried, the third time we lost in the final. I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m driving Old Nellie down to Brazil. It looks like the Dutch can’t get it together, so I might as well go myself.’”
On January 15, Oude Kamphuis took time off from his job working with disabled children and adults in a San Francisco city gardening program and turned the key on Old Nellie. He hasn’t stopped driving since, making his way down Baja California, taking a Mexican ferry from La Paz to Mazatlán, wending through Mexico and Central America, sending his car on a boat from Colón, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia (since there are no roads in Panama’s Darién National Park), and then navigating the Andes through Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
As of Thursday night, Oude Kamphuis e-mailed to say he was on the outskirts of Brasília, the Brazilian capital.
His goal? Get to Salvador in time to see his beloved Netherlands play Spain in the World Cup on June 13. “My birthday is on June 7, and I’d like to have my ass on the beach in Bahia on the 7th,” he said. “That’s what I’m shooting for.”
I found out about Oude Kamphuis from Matt Tomaszewicz, one of his friends in San Francisco, who said Ben was one of a kind. And he’s right. On his remarkable trip, Oude Kamphuis has delivered donated soccer shoes in towns along the way and stopped to speak in schools about using soccer to fight racism and discrimination. Hundreds of people on the journey have signed their names on Old Nellie, which is modified with a special area in the back where Oude Kamphuis often sleeps.
“Today I did a little talk for a school with the kids talking about racism and discrimination through football,” he told me last week. “Going through all the Central and South American countries, my big thing is ‘through football we become one.’
“Everyone drives next to Nellie and they wave, Stop! Stop! Stop!” he continued. “I’m like, ‘No, man, I can’t stop, or I’ll never get to Brazil!’ It’s been a football experience but with the message of, ‘Hey, we’re all the same people, you know, we’re all in this planet together.’ Hopefully through football we can make the world a better place.”
It’s hard to know which is a more arresting sight: Old Nellie, which still has its original 1955 engine, or Oude Kamphuis, who’s 6-foot-7 and likes to wear a bright orange get-up with wooden Dutch shoes. But there’s no denying that he has a magnetic personality wherever he goes.
“To me, it’s such a warm experience if you go on your own,” he said. “People have an easier way to come up to you. If you’re on your own, you have to talk to people. If I need directions, which I do on a regular basis—I don’t have GPS, just a AAA map, and I get my ass lost in the mountains quite a bit—then I’ve gotta go out and talk. I love it.”
Driving any car through Central and South America is no small challenge, and that’s even more true with Old Nellie.
“There’s no suspension on that thing. It’s just a solid block of metal,” he said. “In Mexico I’d say, ‘Amigo, how far from Mazatlán to Puerto Vallarta?’ And they’d say, ‘No worries, amigo, it’s direct, like eight hours.’ And it takes me three frickin’ days to get there. It’s been like that all along. I thought I’d be in Brazil way earlier. But with the mountains and some of the gravel roads I travel, I can barely go 10 miles an hour, because it shakes. But it’s doable. I’ve just gotta take my time.”
Oude Kamphuis has stopped to take in some famous sights, like Machu Picchu in Peru, but the main things he’ll remember from his journey are the people he has encountered. “In the U.S., everyone tells you, ‘Don’t go into Mexico, you’re going to get your ass killed, people are bad, blah blah blah,’” he said. “But from the day I entered Mexico from the border, and all the way to here, over four months now, people have been amazing. People have fed me, people have helped me, people say, ‘Come in my casa.’ It’s been a hell of a ride, but all positive.”
What is Oude Kamphuis going to do with Old Nellie once he gets to Salvador?
“I loved the truck already before I left, but it’s kind of become a part of me, you know what I mean?” he said. “It definitely has made more people smile than I can tell you. So I’m going to put it on a boat, I think. Drive it to a harbor town and put it on a boat and ship it back to the Bay Area. I’ve gotta fly back and go back to work in mid-July.”
Oude Kamphuis was running out of juice on his phone, so I didn’t want to keep him on the Skype connection too long from South America. But he sounded optimistic about the remainder of the drive ahead.
“I’m pretty much at the end,” he said. “I made it through the Andes and all the way down to [Brazil]. It’s pretty flat, but the distances are long to find another town again. I’m aiming for Brasília, then I go northeast to Salvador. And then the Dutch play the Spaniards on the 13th!”