Kochi, Kerala, India

When we arrived in Kochi, in the region of Kerala, after the most heinous bus ride any of us had ever taken—a sleeper bus improperly named; gripping the rails of our bunks as the driver drifted that sumbitch; sleep impossible despite heavy sedatives—we were eager to get some rest. But did we? No. We went out and tackled that city, and spent five days and nights climbing trees, rowing boats, scaling water towers, hitting the YMCA, sneaking into wedding receptions, and taking on the local Connect Four champs on their home turf.

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Because alcohol is regulated heavily in Kerala, you simply cannot get a beer in a restaurant. There are huge pushing lines—picture the run on the bank in It’s a Wonderful Life—at the state-owned liquor stores. The only good option, then, is to go to a bar…of which, this being India, there are very few. XL Bar, on [    ] street, became our haunt and home base. Let’s set the scene: dark room, second floor walk-up, tiny old CRT television in the corner playing soccer (or cricket), a bunch of low tables packed shoulder-to-shoulder with Indians and ex-pats, the small room—seriously small—paneled with wood. Smoke everywhere. It was hot as the dickens. We spent the first night there drinking Kingfisher and sweating from our eyes. The second night, when we went back, we were informed with great apology that the main room was full—and it was—but that we could sit in the back room if we didn’t mind. We were hesitant…until he showed us the back room. As it happened, this hidden oasis boasted actual air conditioning and comfortable couches, and was generally a much nicer place to be. So we stayed, and we came back the next night and the next, and so on. We met some rad people there. Drew and Z, an American and a Frenchy traveling together, were cream of the crop:

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We also did some touristy stuff.

Chinese fishing nets: they never seem to actually catch anything. (They’re basically just fishing the same little spot of shallow water over and over again. How could they expect to?) But they keep going through the motions to appease the hordes of gawkers. This, for me, is tourism at its worst… much worse than an experience manufactured for tourism from the start, built for it on a blueprint—like Disney or Leavenworth, both of which have their charm—the fishing nets started as an authentic bit of local culture and were then put to a slow undeath, repurposed for tourism. (David Foster Wallace on this topic: “It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you.”)

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Market stalls on the water, in cohoots with restaurants nearby: Fishermen bring in the day’s catch; you pick your shit; they cook it for you. And to answer the most obvious question: yes, they have shark.

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The outdoor laundry:  Much smaller than Mumbai’s Dhobi Ghat, but still an interesting spot. Each of these stalls, we were told, is owned by a different family and is the foundation for a multi-generational business.

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Drying lines at the laundry. A prime spot for a music video, but we didn’t have the time or funding. I took these stills of Vince to shop around to producers.

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The famous Kerala backwaters: we opted on the advice of other travelers to take a day trip, rather than the more popular overnight. The reason? The larger houseboats can’t make it back into all the cool little tributaries. We passed by women washing laundry in the shallow water, and other women weaving coconut husks into rope on a gas-powered loom.

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We ate lunch at a little spot along the river. One of my favorite things I’ve eaten on the whole trip—mussels that were likely caught that day, 15 feet from where we ate them.

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I saw some ropes tied around a coconut tree, for use as rungs in climbing.

I climbed the tree. I was happy that I’d gotten to do something unusual, off the tour-beaten routine. Vince then one-upped me by rowing us out of there.

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