I’m standing on the street corner of Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, the busiest pedestrian intersection on the planet (think Lost in Translation), about to lead my travelers into the fray of Japanese businessmen and Harajuku girls.
The walking-man symbol flashes white, and with anticipation I look back at my 11 travelers, strangers brought together on Bravo’s new reality show, Tour Group: a shopaholic Vegas girl who’s been engaged 13 times (seriously), a billionaire divorcée slash former model, a quirky vlogger whose selfie stick is practically an extension of her arm, a god-fearing recovering addict, and a Bond girl…
We’ve become an accidental (circumstantial?) family over the last six weeks like some kind of warped 2016 version of Gilligan’s Island.
Like any large family, our emotional pendulum steadily swings between moments of tenderness and tears, to ones of blood-boiling rivalry that could easily play out in a cage match.
Our voyage of self-discovery, both as a group and as individuals, is dramatically set against the bustle of Shibuya Crossing and dozens of other superlative destinations around the world, from the beaches of the Maldives to the souks of Marrakech.
But in a way, traversing the crowds of Shibuya Crossing—one of the last activities we undertook on our round-the-world adventure—perfectly encapsulates the trip as a whole.
As we walk, one of the guys wanders away to chat up a young woman, two others are bickering about a disagreement from the night before, another quietly swigs her Irish coffee to cure her stunning hangover, and I’m trying to keep everyone motivated and together.
It wasn’t perfect.
But that’s what made it great. Sure, travel is awe-inducing, inspiring, and can change your perceptions of the world, but it’s never that perfect vignette painted on the glossy pages of a luxury travel magazine.
After visiting over 100 countries, writing roughly 50 guidebooks, and spending the greater part of the last decade continuously on the road, I have become all too familiar with the crushing imperfections and accidental moments of travel.
And it’s those experiences that form the foundation of my itinerary for Tour Group’s trip of a lifetime—a journey that wholeheartedly embraces the notion that ticking off your travel bucket list is nice and good, but oftentimes the truly memorable moments are the ones you can never plan for.
It was a morsel of travel wisdom I had already acquired, and was delighted in the idea that my travelers would soon discover it for themselves.
I have a pretty keen sense of the first time I felt that travel serendipity.
I was 19 years old and backpacking on my own through southern Vietnam, a country that had long been on my travel to-do list after hearing about my fourth grade teacher’s wartime escape from Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon) many years prior.
On my second night there I managed to track down a hole-in-the-wall restaurant serving the best pho in town (these are the pre-Yelp days, of course; Bill Clinton had apparently eaten there).
I walked into the restaurant, adorned with small aquariums, and took a seat on my own. As soon as I started perusing the chalkboard menu, I was called over to the next table by a young couple.
Now it should be noted that a 19-year-old Brandon looked like your average 14-year-old human male, so maybe they thought I was lost. But they were wondering instead if I wanted to join them for dinner.
We talked for hours, sharing anecdotes about each others’ lives—I was studying architecture in college, and they were practicing designers—and when I motioned to the waiter in an attempt to pay our bill, they smiled, saying they had already covered the check. I was truly touched.
What was originally a quest for the world’s best pho was suddenly a completely different experience—an exercise in genuine hospitality and generosity from the heart that is now engrained in my mind forever.
I felt like I was surfing some kind of karmic travel wave, and promised myself that I would always keep my spirit open to those kinds of random experiences.
But then, of course, there are the trips where you feel like your travel luck has run out…
And on that note, I should first say that I adore Thailand. I’ve spent a sum total of about 2½ years there, and wrote nine guidebooks for Lonely Planet about the kingdom’s incredible beaches.
It felt crucial for me to bring my Tour Group travelers there if only to experience Bangkok’s cacophony of clanging street stalls, curious nightlife, and solemn shrines.
But Thailand is also the country where, over the course of three short months, I suffered a raging case of dengue fever and was arrested for getting into a fight with a hotel manager over a child prostitute.
Let me explain.
The dengue fever: Like a bone-crushing, searing fever often more harrowing than malaria, the mosquito-borne illness swept across the little island I was living on while completing the coursework to become a scuba Divemaster.
It hit me like a brick wall while I was turning the anchor screw of a moored boat at the bottom of the ocean. I jetted to the surface, like a dolphin doing tricks at the zoo, and was rushed to shore where I languished in bed for the good part of six weeks, hovering at a body mass of about 100 pounds.
The arrest: When I was finally well enough to leave bed, I made tracks towards Bangkok to seek more medical care at an international standard. I paused in the beach town of Hua Hin along the way, staying at a small motel for the night.
Immediately upon checking in the phone in my bedroom rang: “Hello mister, would you like lady, man, ladyboy or child?” I wasn’t a stranger to the skin trade offers, having traversed the country several times on my own which researching travel guides, but this was the first time I had ever been offered a child.
I couldn’t just politely brush them off like I usually do—I had to take action. I marched downstairs and with each step grew more enraged, finally letting out a roaring scream at the hotel manager when I reach the lobby.
Losing face is a huge cultural faux pas in Thailand (and I’m sure you can guess that when my Tour Group travelers threw tantrums in Bangkok they were not received so warmly), and my ranting was not taken kindly to—never mind the fact that I was exposing the manager as some kind of underage pimp.
She immediately summoned the police, and before I could blink two men in uniform grabbed my arms and pulled me outside. Remembering Oprah’s immortal words—“Never let them take you to a second location”—I calmly asked the policemen what I could do to make this all go away.
The trick up my sleeve was my Thai friend Rashi, just a phone call away on my cell in my back pocket. With one arm free I reached for my phone, uttered nothing more than “I’m being arrested!” and passed my cell to one of the police officers as they were dragging me further down the block.
She spoke with the policeman for no more than 30 seconds before he pressed the phone to my heart. All I heard was “empty your wallet," and the officers briefly let me go so I could do so. I handed them all of my money (about 2000 baht, or $60) and they walked away.
I could fill a long-haul flight’s worth of stories about the moments that never made it into the guidebook, like having the wind rip off the door of my car after wrecking it on an Icelandic fjord (an obvious “low”), or hitchhiking through the tribal lands of rural Borneo (a “high,” luckily).
I thought about these moments often while traveling with Tour Group, especially during the trip’s very own highs and lows, from making a difficult judgment call when one traveler was too ill to fly, to weeping on each other’s shoulders after practically spooning gentle gorillas in Rwanda’s protected mountains.
The dozens of books, hundreds of magazines articles, and thousands of trips undertaken have absolutely equipped me with all the logistical tools one could ever want or need when planning a perfect trip.
These projects have formed the way I think about travel. But it’s the accidental experiences—the moments of unforgettable serendipity—that inform how I feel about travel.
And it’s these moments—the imperfect moments—that have served me well when bracing for impact on Tour Group’s trip of a lifetime. And believe me, there were a lot of impacts.
Any Bravo-binger worth their salt has seen the Tour Group commercial that ends with Vegas shopaholic Heather in the throes of a tearful meltdown: “My flatiron blew up, my curling iron blew up, I’m not trying to be a princess here but, it’s like, I have nothing.”
But when divorcee/model Michelle swiftly shoots back, “F#%king baby,” it’s a moment of great pride for me. My travelers were starting to get it.
Now flashback to Shibuya Crossing, and I’m about to lead Heather, Michelle, and the rest of my travelers across the street. I’m smiling, even though I know it’s all going to go wrong, because nothing on this journey was ever as easy as a smile and a walk.
Watch Tour Group on Bravo every Tuesday at 10 p.m. starting March 1.