I looked down, unlocked my phone and made a selection. Van Morrison. Into the Mystic. It starts with a few strums of the guitar… ‘We were born before the wind. Also younger than the sun’. I’d been at it for hours. Thumbing through playlists for the right songs. The ones that slide down your spine. Make you breathe deep, roll your shoulders back and relax. I looked around. They dug it. Everyone was smiling, eyes closed, heads swaying. It was a perfect night.

When I started writing these stories, the plan was to create a guide to group travel. Something that would answer the questions I get asked, like – who picks the destination, how do you decide what to do everyday, don’t people get sick of each other? They’re all valid, but I haven’t found a way to answer them because they so rarely come up. We’re different. I mean, there’s an occasional flipping of a bird, but it’s always forgiven and quickly forgotten. 

While sailing in Thailand, there was something that kept coming up. A running joke. A thing we said to call out the moments that explain our dynamic. Our bond. Our unwritten rules for life on the road. A simple statement, repeated over and over. This is why we’re friends. 

Get a sense of humour. 

If you’re easily offended, group travel probably isn’t for you. You’ve got to be able to volley. Make a joke, take a joke, roll with whatever comes. When asked to put someone’s phone in my beach bag, I once answered – stick it in my hole – as I pulled the drawstring open. It became a thing. How wide was it? How deep? Some people would be mortified. I went full Sandberg. I leaned in. My hole was vast. And dry. 

A few years back, someone brought a new girl sailing. She seemed cool. Go with the flow. And then there was an incident. While she was swimming, he flushed the toilet, not realizing the valves were open. She smelled it before she saw it. Pretty much walked on water to get away. Once back on board, she disappeared below deck for hours. Rumour has it she was showering the whole time. But she reappeared at dinner and as she sat down at the table, J reached out, pretending to pick something from her hair. ‘Is that corn?’ – he asked. We exchanged looks. There was a beat. Total silence. And she laughed, loud. Cemented her spot in the crew. Shit happens.

Roll with it.

While in Chiang Mai, I’d spotted a restaurant that looked interesting. We grabbed a table at the front and were greeted by the owner, a transgender Thai with a gruff demeanour. She pointed to the menu written in chalk on the wall and barked at us to order. No small talk. No smiles. The food arrived abruptly, thrown on the table with a handful of cutlery. Massaman. Cashew chicken. Crunchy spring rolls. While we ate, she sat inside, in the dark, watching us from an empty table. It was unsettling. 

The table next to us turned over three times. People stopped for a drink and decided it was too uncomfortable to stay and eat. They left. We lingered. Ordered more beer. Back at the hotel, we looked at the reviews. One point three stars. Were we going to get food poisoning? Had we just eaten rat? Turns out, the experience we had was universal and most people put it in writing. ‘No way I want that hate in my food.’ ‘So rude!’ ‘You’ll never be welcome here.’ ‘Can you give a place zero stars?’ ‘This was the strangest meal I’ve had in my life.’ Sure. But it was fucking delicious. 

Expect the unexpected. 

It’s all part of the experience. A saying tossed out often as we navigate the uncertain and unexpected elements of travel. Basically, we use it when something goes sideways. For example, when your friends bypass an island toll booth, get questioned by Thai police and then leave you behind while they go get cash. There were two of us. We’d walked slower than the rest and arrived back on the beach in time to see our dinghy speeding away. When seven armed officers motioned that we should take a seat outside their guard post, we realized we’d been left as collateral. Momentarily alarming? Sure. I’ve seen Brokedown Palace. But we were fine. It was like being in detention. With machine guns. So we sat quietly, watching Russian tourists take ridiculous selfies. All part of the experience. 

Be real.

I’m not a strong swimmer. I like to snorkel, but still find the ocean intimidating. I’d left the boat with J, heading straight to the shoreline and then along the reef. The water was murky. The current dragging me closer to the coral than I was comfortable with. He eventually made it to the beach, but I turned back. It was a long way. And as I swam, my head started to spin. Would passing boats run me over? Aren’t sharks more likely to attack when the visibility is low? Am I going to get a leg cramp and drown? By the time I pulled myself out of the water, I was shaking. Most people would seek the privacy of their cabin. Have a private breakdown. But here, with these people, the walls are down. I took the first hug offered, knowing there’d be no judgement if a few tears squeaked out. 

Pull your weight.

It’s not all fun and games. We each have jobs to do. You might be responsible for cooking a meal, taking out the trash or landing the anchor. There’s no free ride. Group travel works when everyone contributes. Basically, we’re in this together. But jobs don’t have to suck. If we need ice, we take our time. We stop for cocktails. Scope out potential restaurants. And take selfies while walking the two miles back with a twenty pound bag of cubes propped on one shoulder and rivers of ice water running down our back. Don’t like it? No problem. There’s always an airport nearby. 

Make music.

And finally, if there’s one piece of advice I can give about group travel, it’s this – playlists matter. Studies suggest that music creates social cohesion. If you think about it, the right collection of songs was at the heart of every great party you’ve been to. It makes us dance, sing along. It creates moments that stick in our memories. 

There was one trip where a technical glitch resulted in the same five songs being played over and over again. The owner of the playlist took endless shit about it and to this day, I have to change the station if one of those songs come on. Hasn’t happened since. We’re practiced now. If there’s an eight hour open ocean crossing, we’ve got a list for that. 90’s theme party? Done. Midnight meteor shower after many gins and juices? Obviously. This is why we’re friends (on shuffle).