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Petalumans take on 10,000-mile ‘Mongol Rally’ for local charity

Petalumans Nick Bokaie and Roberto Rosila are redefining the concept of a summer road trip with a 10,000-mile trek that will send them barreling through multiple time zones while crossing mountains, deserts and grasslands in Europe and Asia to raise money for a local charity this July.

The longtime friends plan to take on the “Mongol Rally,” an annual event created by United Kingdom-based company The Adventurists that’s intended to take participants on an epic journey while generating money for various charities. The rules of the game are starkly straightforward: only “farcically small” vehicles with no larger than a 1000 cc motor are allowed to register, and there’s no backup support provided for mechanical or navigational troubles.

“There’s no help whatsoever,” Bokaie said. “We’re pretty much left to our own devices.”

While careening through unknown territory in a 1970 Austin Cooper armed with only camping gear, granola bars, maps and a handful of tools and parts might seem terrifying to some, Bokaie and Rosila, both 24, embrace the spontaneous spirit of the journey.

Bokaie, a native Petaluman who last year graduated with a degree in cognitive science from the University of California, San Diego, said he stumbled on the rally online soon after he’d finished school and decided there was “no better time” to take on the journey, which starts in London and ends in Russia, about 400 miles north of Mongolia’s capital. He called Rosila, who he grew up with in Petaluma, to ask him to come along.

“I said, ‘yeah, man, let’s do it,’ ” said Rosila, who’s in his junior year of studying aerospace engineering at San Jose State University. “At the time I didn’t really think about the pros and cons. … For me, it’s an awesome opportunity to see the other side of the world while driving a pretty awesome car.”

Between 2009 and 2013, about $370,000 has been raised for charity though the rally, according to the most recently available data. Bokaie and Rosila plan to raise $20,000 for Social Advocates for Youth, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit that provides housing, counseling and employment services for Sonoma County youth.

For Rosila, who grew up attending programs through the Boys and Girls Club in Petaluma, it’s an opportunity to help bolster youth services in the county while giving back to his childhood mentor, Matt Martin, who’s now at the helm of SAY.

“(Roberto) is making the most of opportunities that are coming his way,” said Martin, the nonprofit’s CEO. “To see him put this rally project together with his friend and to then generate dollars to support Sonoma County’s most vulnerable youth is just remarkable. It gives me hope as a professional here in Sonoma County and also as a parent to know there are young men and women out there who want to give back.”

Bokaie and Rosila say they’re both mechanically-savvy and share an appreciation for classic cars, so a Mini Cooper seemed like a perfect fit, Bokaie said. They settled on a sea foam blue $5,000 Mini Cooper in Texas, flying out to pick it up and driving it back to California before shipping it out of the Port of Oakland to make its way to the U.K., where they’ll pick it up before the July 17 start date.

“We wanted to buy a car in the U.S. and it drive around the U.S. to make it more organic for ourselves so we’d have something tangible beforehand,” Bokaie said, adding that the “gasoline gods” are looking out for him, and the car only required a few tweaks, such as adding a new suspension, and made it without a hitch on the nearly 2,000 mile drive from Austin.

They dubbed the Mini Cooper “Penelope,” and plan to document the journey, and the large impact that the tiny car has on people in a “Humans of New York-style” project called “People with Penelope.”

They plan to travel through about a dozen countries, including France, Germany, Hungary, Romania and Turkey, tracing the route with a GPS and maps. The race’s finish line opens Aug. 12 and closes Sept. 12, and the pair hopes to complete the journey in six to eight weeks, with enough time for Rosila to return to school to wrap up his senior year.

They plan to keep abreast with news from the “hot spot” areas to prepare and plan while working out documents for crossing though countries.

Much of the whirlwind adventure will involve working with others, including locals and the estimated 200 other teams in the rally, to help with mechanical issues and finding lodging. But meeting new people and immersing themselves in the culture is something they’re both looking forward to.

“We’re both pretty charismatic and sociable people, and we’re not afraid to communicate with anyone we don’t know,” Rosila said.

With just a few weeks to go, the excitement for the “once in a lifetime experience” is building, Rosila said, adding that he’s looking forward to traveling overseas for the first time. Bokaie, who says he’s already traveled extensively, said he’s most excited for “the adventure itself.”

“Traveling is a passion of mine and so is working on classic vintage cars — this rally embodies both of those passions in my life and it will be a nice culmination of both of those,” Bokaie said, adding that his personal goal is for all parties to “make it out alive.”

To make a tax-deductible donation to support the charity, visit peoplewithpenelope.com/donate.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang)