None of us travel to paddle in the shallows of a place. We all dream of dunking our head in the deep end. A trip to Sri Lanka taught writer Megan Brownrigg that swapping sightseeing trails for random human interactions is where travel gets truly immersive.
Three of us are attempting a hairpin bend up a mountain in a tuk-tuk. It’s from a standstill so we’ve got plenty of time to position ourselves. But we still cock it up.
The sit-rep reads that our back wheel is in a ditch. There’s mud everywhere. Ryan’s in chinos. Sam’s head is in his hands over the handlebars. Scanning the map, I reckon this is also probably the wrong mountain.
At least the street’s empty of spectators I think, as five strangers appear out of nowhere.
Sacrificing hellos, they channel their energy into lifting our tuk-tuk with us in it. We stare gormlessly, as a guy leans into our doorless, windowless and roofless chassis, and yanks the throttle back to life. As far as we can tell we’re either being kidnapped very slowly, or we’re being helped without any consultation, by a flash mob of fairy godmothers.
So goes Sri Lanka. People appear out of thin air to help you, like heroes in a video game. These particular heroes eventually waved us off like proud mums, displaying unconditional love, as we re-attempted the steep bend in painful slow motion.
This was my first taste of immersive travel, as part of Large Minority’s Lanka Challenge. I’d never before wagered that a package-style holiday could get me so close to the bone of adventure and local interaction, but that’s exactly what this kind of trip does. At the time of our failed hill-start, my silly friends and I had learned to drive a tuk-tuk two days earlier, and were in the process of trying to navigate it 1500km around southern Sri Lanka in ten days. To make things a little more spicy, Large Minority’s founder, Julian Carnall, had set us all daily challenges ( in addition to driving around a country in a thing we couldn’t drive). He wrote us missions that got us stopping in local communities and meeting people, whether we meant to or not. And that, far more than the kilometres we were expected to cover, is how he got us exploring this exceptional island.
Before meeting Julian, I expected the founder of an adventure travel company to yelp the word ‘awesome’ every two seconds and carry a soundbar around like a third arm. But you’re lucky if you get a wry smile from Julian. The Kenyan reserves his wit for moments when he needs to confirm you’ve made a tit of yourself (so we witnessed plenty of it). He’s straight up, no nonsense, and loves the local communities he brings tourists to. Years after I’d tried his way of travelling, he boiled down his formula for me;
“Sometimes when we’re travelling, being open to failure breeds our best experiences. It’s worth investing in the mantra that getting stuck can be the best way to get stuck in.”
“Destinations can be ruined by travellers who don’t consider their impacts. By completing local challenges it makes us consider what we’re doing socially and environmentally. It’s about getting stuck in with the life of a place.”
Julian has been running Large Minority since 2009 and has a loyal following of adventurers. I asked him what the trips stir in us that keeps us coming back. He said adventures start from stopping people in the street for a chat. “It’s liberating and so easy. The trips are physically exhausting and mentally relaxing, and remind people how to fall in love with places and people again.”
Years after completing the Lanka Challenge, the encounters I had during that time remain some of my favourite community travel experiences. I’ve since tried to apply its ethos to my daily life and regularly find myself befriending people outside Bristol’s corner shops back home. I’ve learned that if you adopt an open perspective, you can travel immersively anywhere.
Whether you’re looking to immerse yourself in faraway cultures, or dig your toes into your home soil a little deeper, here’s what the Lanka Challenge taught me about exploring:
1) Give things at least three chances
In a sticky climate, when you’re ‘on holiday,’ it can be tough to persevere with outlandish missions, but it’s worth going long.
One day in Sri Lanka, Julian challenged us to learn a local song. The language barrier immediately proved tricky. We struggled to explain our brief to a coconut vendor, so we drank him out of king coconuts instead.
By dusk, we had several failed song-learning attempts under our belts and were heading away from civilisation towards Bundala National Park. We stopped by a solitary shop for supplies and there, in the middle of nowhere, a group of girls plumped an impromptu choir for us. Proving that surprises can never come too late in Sri Lanka, they successfully taught us a song in Sinhala.
But truthfully the real win had come during one of our earlier misfires when, as we hotly pursued someone who might serenade us, my camera had tumbled out of our tuk-tuk and onto a main road. I had no idea until it was long gone. It should have been a low point, but a local tuk-tuk driver had found it and put the word out to meet him at a petrol station. If there was a language barrier I don’t remember it. All he wanted as thanks for returning my camera, was a selfie together. The exchange left me speechless, songless, and glad nothing that day had gone to plan.
Sometimes when we’re travelling, being open to failure breeds our best experiences. It’s worth investing in the mantra that getting stuck can be the best way to get stuck in.
“Sipping coconuts together at a plastic table and chairs, we were only hearing their story because we weren’t in a rush.”
2) Eat up
Another challenge Julian assigned us was to cook curry with a local family. As three Brits, we imagined how people in London would respond to strangers approaching them branding a bag of aubergines and four hours of unexpected company, and were ready to learn the Sri Lankan for “f*** off.” Still, we planned to drive around until we found someone friendlier than we’d ever met before, who hadn’t had lunch yet. As three old university friends, team cohesion was also at an inconvenient low: Sam hates curry, I had a really bad stomach, and Ryan was keen as mustard to explore his Indian roots.
But somehow, on a busy street in Mattala, a guy invited our discordant trio into his family home without hesitation. His ease taught us that such openness is perfectly average for Sri Lankans. We spent an afternoon with him and his family learning to cook dhal, make coconut rice, and use spice. Sam had to ignore his fussy habits and I had to gut fish even though it made me want to vomit. Our host, unplagued by formalities, left us briefly to attend prayer at his mosque before returning to eat with us. We finished up with clean plates and the most unquestioning hospitality I’d ever experienced.
Meals are such a bonding thing. It’s worth testing your taste buds when you’re away and trying something new. Being adventurous with food can etch common ground with the best strangers.
3) Know how to say thank you
A year after I completed the first Lanka Challenge, I did it again with my brother around the north of the island. Having mastered tuk-tuk driving by then, I successfully sliced our front tyre on a curb hours before the finish-line. It was nearly dark, we were already lost, and it was raining a lot.
While I stood in the rain replaying the mistake in my mind, my brother Jack hitched a ride to the nearest town cradling our spare tyre. He found a mechanic who re-lit his workshop that night especially to help us. Significantly, it was the eve of the Buddhist Vesak Poya festival. This man didn’t just pull a long shift for us, he pulled it on the eve of one of his biggest religious holidays. I’m glad we could at least offer ‘istuti’; the Sinhala word for thank you.
If you really want to immerse yourself in a place, put a little phrasebook together before you get there, and make sure ‘thank you’ is at the top of the list. You’ll almost always rely on the generosity of locals to help you.
4) Grab a history lesson
Julian once entrusted us with designing our own ‘socially responsible challenge.’ Driving around, we stumbled upon a school hosting an event by the Ministry of Culture. Kids from different religious backgrounds were crafting paper kites together in the playground. A little bit of history helped me appreciate how big a deal this was. Sri Lanka’s civil war had lasted longer than my lifetime and divided Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Now Buddhist and Hindu children were happily flying origami together.
It’s always worth glancing at the history section of your guidebook to pick up these nuances of a place. I try to check out any special holiday dates that happen during travel dates too. And if you’re a bookworm, getting into a native writer’s work is the best holiday read. If you prefer hustling with headphones, do a podcast search on your destination.
5) Slow down
It’s the nature of a road trip to move, but pit stops are where you meet people and make memories. One afternoon, we stopped by a weather-beaten sign for a family conservation project. With time to spare, we met a tuk-tuk driver and his family who had teamed up with local monks to protect turtles. The driver’s daughter had a disfigured arm, and her impairment is what drives his family’s belief that the world needs more acts of kindness like wildlife conservation. Sipping coconuts together at a plastic table and chairs, we were only hearing their story because we weren’t in a rush. These are conversations you miss at 40 miles per hour. Whether you’re in a tuk-tuk, car, coach or on a bike; pull over every now and then.
6) Travel with the right people
Whilst there’s romance in just turfing up at a place, it’s important to get shown around by people who care. Large Minority gives back 10% of every dollar it makes to its flagship community projects, which you visit on the adventure. Julian also makes every trip carbon neutral and recruits local crew.
In Sri Lanka, this crew includes an army of trusty mechanics like Head Engineer Heshan, who refurbishes these tuk-tuks with boom boxes and pucker paint jobs. This gig has happily made Heshan a traveller in his own country. “I’ve got to meet people from all over the world in this job, on my home soil. I love it,” he says. “Sri Lankan people love seeing westerners drive tuk-tuks! It’s even better when they stop to say hello and mingle with our culture.”
Booking with a good company is what made my trip to Sri Lanka what it was. It meant I could let go and enjoy the adventure as soon as I arrived. Wherever you go, look up who you’re going with.
7) Keep things in perspective
Immersive travel also helps us keep perspective on a place. When April 2019’s terror attacks happened in Sri Lanka, there was a 57% drop in tourism within two months, according to the Tourism Development Authority. Today, the country risks isolation from international support, such as tourism, in the face of its economic crisis.
Of course we should always travel safely. But when you’ve been to a place, and actually hung out with its people, things feel different to when you watch it on the news. You judge that place by its rule rather than fixating on its exceptions. For me, Sri Lanka’s rule is that people wouldn’t stop showing us random acts of kindness until it just wasn’t random any more. I’d go there again in a heartbeat.
Large Minority run adventures like the Lanka Challenge all over the world, check them out here.