“Them, they look the right kind of people,” yells Myriam pointing a well manicured hand in the direction of a Sri Lankan family quietly sitting on the stoop of their lean-to. “How do you know?” I ask. “I don’t, I’m just getting this vibe, ” Myriam replies as she slows the tuk-tuk.
“So you’re getting a vibe from 40 metres away that they’re going to invite us into their home, teach us to eat with our hands and feed us lunch?”
“Suppose it’s worth a try. Any chance being a female tuk-tuk driver and wearing a brightly coloured kaftan will put them off?”
We were a long way from our natural environment, that of a corporate, comfortable life in Dubai – about 3,300km to be more accurate. Myriam and I had signed up for the Lanka Challenge, a 13-day, 1,500km tuk-tuk race that raises money for education and health care in local communities across Sri Lanka. I’d heard about the race from a few friends in Dubai who’d done it before and I knew the race organisers through work but I’ve usually dedicated my annual leave to visiting family and friends or lying on a beach somewhere. This time, however, I thought I’d try something a bit different. Driving a tuk-tuk through a country I hadn’t visited before sounded fun – and hey, Sri Lanka had beaches so it couldn’t be too far from my comfort zone.
Wrong. It was only the second day, (the first was spent tarting up our tuk-tuk and learning how to drive it) and we weren’t allowed GPS;, we were relying on my rudimentary map- reading skills and trying to complete our first challenge. Unlike many other wacky driving races, the Lanka Challenge is more about completing a list of diverse tasks than gunning your tuk-tuk like a bat out of hell to the finish. The task for day two was to get photo evidence of us eating Sri Lankan-style with a local family. At first glance that didn’t seem too challenging but throw in the fact that neither of us speaks Sinhalese or Tamil (Sri Lanka’s most widely spoken languages) and the race rule that we weren’t allowed to exchange money to complete tasks and things got a little tougher.
Fortunately our family was so bemused to see a couple of brightly dressed Caucasians turning up in a tuk-tuk and manically gesturing with their hands, they happily invited us in for something to eat – if only to reduce the hand movement.
After munching down rice and curry we thanked them with lots of smiles and headed off past the paddy fields and along the coast to the second check point in Alankuda. High off completing our first challenge and a day of driving past stunning scenery, we met up with the other 19 teams taking part to swap stories and laugh about our encounters.
Part of what makes the trip so good is the other people you meet completing the challenge. The ages range from 18 to 50, heralding from different nationalities and careers, there was even a couple doing it for their honeymoon. And rather than being highly competitive, there’s a sense of camaraderie, as every tuk-tuk team wants to make the most out of the experience.
Myriam and I soon settled into a routine of getting up around 8am and setting off with a new list of challenges to complete and another checkpoint to get to. Each evening we’d meet the other teams at the accommodation, keyed up by the day’s adventure and excited to find out how everyone else had got on. This sometimes lasted pretty late into the night and meant driving hungover the following day – which isn’t easy along dusty roads in heat and humidity, completely exposed to the elements, but totally worth it.
By the first of our two rest days, on day six and day 10, we’d stopped thinking about our lives and responsibilities at home and had become completely immersed in enjoying the trip, interacting with the locals and experiencing Sri Lanka. The daily challenges took most of our attention as they ranged from taking pictures of wildlife, orienteering without any form of navigation (map, GPS or compass) and working with other teams.
Although I drew the line at squelching my fingers through fresh elephant dung, I did step up for the chilli eating competition. I wish I hadn’t! One evening each team had to nominate a member to eat a spoonfuls of chilli without making any facial expressions. And by eat, I mean chew. As each spoonful got hotter and hotter my insides churned – I didn’t win and my stomach was the biggest loser. The next day’s driving was an “experience”. I spent the ride curled-up in the fetal position in the back of the tuk-tuk. Thank god I got some help and TLC from the medical team that accompanied us all the way along the trip.
Each day was meticulously planned by the organiszers who’d taken trouble to make sure we all experienced as much of Sri Lanka’s landscape and culture as we could. Every drive brought new scenery; we raced along tarmac through towns, negotiated muddy trails in the jungle, cowered from the rain in the tea plantations and paddy fields, and sucked in lungfuls of sea air driving down windy byways next to the beach. Of course there was the odd flat tyre and mud trap along the way but instead of getting frustrated, we just pitched in to get the tuk-tuk running again.
It was the one of the last challenges that I’ll remember for a long time. We went to a school to help the local children plant trees and after such an epic journey we all felt a little emotional. When I booked the trip it never occurred to me that I’d be doing anything quite so fulfilling. I signed up for the Lanka Challenge for a bit of adventure and to visit a new country. What I experienced was a lot more than that. There’s obviously problem solving, team work, a lot of laughs and some learning going on too, but you also get a sense of doing good that’s not particularly palpable in the corporate world. With hindsight, I would’ve liked to have raised more money for the charities involved before I left for the trip.
The final day’s drive was also the hardest in terms of handling the tuk-tuk. The road was rocky and bouncing around in the back felt like being in a blender. The honeymoon couple’s tuk-tuk even rolled but fortunately they came out of it smiling. By the end we were all elated to finish, in need of a rest but also feeling that sad tug that signals the end of any holiday. Needless to say there was a big party to announce the winners, with prizes for some of the more creative responses to the challenges.
Adjusting back into the ritz and wealth that bombards you as soon as you land in Dubai was something that took longer than I’d expected. In fact, when I met up with some of my fellow Lanka Challenge competitors a week or so later we all commented on what a humbling experience it had been. It’s too easy to get caught up in professional life, so I say sign up for the race no matter what your driving or fitness levels. It’s challenging, lots of fun and a surprisingly good panacea ftor the stress and pressure of working life.
Kylee’s tips for surviving the Lanka Challenge
Take music and opt for the Pimpin’ tuk-tuk package so you can plug in your iPhone and listen during the daily drives which are anything from 110km to 190km.Learn about the recent history of Sri Lanka before you get there so you can understand more about the culture and the people.Go with an open mind and be happy to just let go of not being able to plan everything. Take balloons, colouring books and crayons to give out to the children you meet along the way. It’s a great way to say thank you.
Kylee flew direct from Dubai to Colombo. A place on the Lanka Challenge for a team of two costs US$2,350 per person and includes: hire and use of a tuk-tuk for the duration of the challenge, accommodation for two people (11 nights) in double or twin rooms. Half board (11 breakfasts and 11 dinners), challenge logistics (mechanics, ambulance, support team), welcome pack (SIM, map, T-shirt, bag, phrase book, navigational sheets) and a 10 per cent contribution to the charity project Meaningful Travel. For more information visit Lanka Challenge.