Randall Leese, 24, was in Central America in 2008 when he received an e-mail from his older brother Andrew that he later said changed his life.
It said: “Do you want to cycle around the world with me?”
Randall replied “yes,” and the two brothers began to save money and make plans for their trip.
Andrew, now 32, said it was his life-long dream to bicycle around the world. Another consideration for both brothers was their deep Catholic faith, which prompted them to make the ride more than just an adventure.
Andrew had friends who volunteered at the Servi Domini (God’s Service) orphanage run by the Consoling Sisters of the Sacred Heart in the town of Palayamkottai in the Tamil Nadu state of India.
Andrew also knew a priest in Edmonds, Father Patrick Summers, who knew first-hand what conditions were in Indian orphanages.
The brothers decided to dub their adventure “The Orphan Ride” and to fundraise around the world for the Servi Domini Orphanage.
Their bicycle odyssey began here on Whidbey Island on April 3, 2009.
Fueled by about $30,000 in personal savings and helped by donations from supportive friends, they first rode south to California, then headed east across the country.
Everywhere they went in America, they were met with generosity when they explained their goal of raising money for the orphanage.
“We found Americans were more generous than Europeans for the most part,” said Randall.
“People in the southwestern desert were moved by our dedication,” Andrew said. “Some gave us $100 bills because they could see we were serious.”
They averaged 100 miles a day on their journey across America. Their mountain bikes with attached trailers weighed about 100 lbs. each. They camped along the way, stayed with friends, and detoured once to Minnesota to attend a friend’s ordination.
They flew from New York to Paris in time to see the Tour de France. From there, they went to Dover, England, then on to Pembroke, Wales where they caught a ferry to Ireland.
“The Irish people were so warm and welcoming,” Randall said.
Back on the continent again, the pair made their way to Israel and Palestine, where they visited sites that are important to their Catholic faith.
“In Jerusalem, we walked in the footsteps of Christ and the Apostles,” Andrew said.
“It was like going back in time,” said Randall.
Their adventurous, meandering journey took them through Uzbekistan, where they were sleeping in a teahouse near the capital when two drunks accosted them at 4 a.m. in a bumbling robbery attempt.
“It was like the Wild West,” said Randall. “They demanded money in Russian, which we understood, but pretended we didn’t. Finally I guess they figured if we were sleeping in the teahouse, we didn’t have much worth taking and they left.”
“But in most places, we met more spontaneous kindness and hospitality than I thought possible,” Randall said.
“In poor countries, people are especially willing to reach out,” Andrew said. “In spite of cultural differences and language barriers, we’re all human.”
Though they expected to run into anti-American feeling, instead they found a welcoming spirit.
“We are not hated,” Andrew said. “People seem to look to Americans to set an example, and we took our role as U.S. representatives seriously.”
They avoided unstable Afghanistan but did pass through Pakistan on their way to the orphanage in southern India. Once there, they settled in for five months of volunteer work. About 50 children live at the orphanage, which also shelters some sick, disabled and elderly people.
The orphanage has separate housing for girls and boys. The Leese brothers stayed at the boys’ orphanage in the priory. The first day, they cycled down to the girls’ orphanage and were welcomed with chalk pictures painted on the ground and smiling, dark-eyed girls all wearing their best clothes.
They were assigned supervision and teaching duties in the orphanage. Randall taught English, while Andrew’s best memories are of the baseball games he supervised.
“Even though we knew some of the kids had seen horrible things like a mother committing suicide, or their father beating their mother to death, they didn’t seem to have the mental health issues you might expect,” said Andrew. “They were innocent in the ways kids should be.”
After their experience in the orphanage, the brothers split up, and Randall traveled through Southeast Asia before returning home to Whidbey in the fall of 2011, while Andrew made his way to China. He finally made it home in June 2012.
Randall cycled to Bellingham to meet him and together they rode the final 100 miles into Langley for a reunion with friends and supporters at Useless Bay Coffee Company on June 27.
They’d cycled 24,000 miles in 30 countries over 1078 days, fixed 105 flat tires, slept outside most of the time, eaten local food offered by people who had little of their own, encountered police and some suspicion until they explained themselves, but never lost their faith in their mission.
To date they’ve raised close to $34,000, and donations can still be made through their website, orphanride.org.
“There were trials, and lessons inherent in the experience – and a series of small miracles that held everything together,” Andrew said.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Randall said. “I experienced what my faith has told me all along. We felt God’ s providence all the way.”