A quick note on an interesting trip just completed, followed by a short story I wrote last September for the writers’ group I belong to.
Over the past week, our trail took us to Chile through the Paso de Jama and the extreme-altitude salt flats of the Puna before reaching San Pedro de Atacama, a picturesque town with dirt streets and, oddly, a number of fine hotels and restaurants.
By “extreme altitudes,” I refer to spending close to three hours driving above 15,000 feet, a ride made bearable only by the amazing scenery, wildlife, and by “sipping” from an oxygen tank. It is one of the few places in the world where you will encounter, in no particular order, herds of wild vicunas, llamas, donkeys, and even pink flamingos.
And then there are the salt flats—wide expanses of salt broken only infrequently by enterprises of various sizes, from base-level salt harvesters and natives selling trinkets made of salt, to lithium miners: Toyota has a modest-sized plant you can view from a distance.
As for San Pedro de Atacama, it is, remarkably, the number two tourist destination in Chile. The aforementioned dirt streets, located at 7,900 feet high, are mostly crowded with young backpackers, many of them American (unlike Argentina where American tourists are still fairly rare). There are also some very high-end hotels brimming with older tourists. At the hotel we were staying at, I would have been among the youngest residents.
My overall impression of San Pedro is Star Wars meets Mad Max. The former because of similarities with the desert world of Tatooine, and the latter because, other than maybe eight blocks in the “tourist” area, the place is a chaos of beat-up old cars, dilapidated shacks, and fellow travelers lacking basic personal hygiene.
As the driest place on Earth, it rains so infrequently the shacks don’t even need proper roofs… piles of twigs will do the trick.
No sugar coating it: it’s a long drive from the far more verdant valley of Cafayate.
For those with detail-oriented minds, the legs of our journey were thus:
Day One: Cafayate to Purmamarca, a very nice little pueblo on the Argentine side of the border where we spent the night, a drive of about six hours.
Day Two: Purmamarca to San Pedro de Atacama, about six hours, depending on how much time you have to waste doing busy work at the border. Arriving early enough to beat the tourist buses, we were able to get the paperwork done in an hour, a near record, according to our driver.
Day Three: Hanging in San Pedro de Atacama, mainly hitting some of the better restaurants (hands-down winner was the ceviche at El Sachal).
Day Four: Drive from San Pedro back to Salta, about eight hours in all, including the hour spent futzing around with the stupid border-crossing procedures. We overnighted in Salta to recover from the trip and the time at high altitudes.
Day Five: Big shop in Salta, then back to Cafayate, about three hours.
Given the altitude, the number of hours driving, the obvious risks involved on the twisty, avalanche-prone roads on the Argentine side (the drive is featured on the “dangerous roads” website), it’s not a trip for the faint of heart.
That said, even though I am generally a lousy tourist, I was quite taken by the scenery and the quirkiness of San Pedro de Atacama, a truly unique little town in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
Was the trip worth it? Yes, but given the total time and effort involved, I would suggest you hire a car and a driver as we did. For the more budget minded, I guess taking a bus is a reasonable option as long as you are prepared to spend at least two hours standing in line at the border, the least enjoyable aspect of the journey.
Moving on, with things being crazy busy as I try to catch up from the trip, I am sharing a short story called “The Stunt” I wrote last September. You may find it amusing, or it may cause your blood pressure to rise because it touches the third rail of politics, with a few indelicate words sprinkled in.
When I wrote it, I had no idea it might actually turn out to be prescient. For the record, I certainly don’t support the opposition. The only candidate worth supporting, in my opinion, is former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, but he has less than a snowball’s chance in a steel furnace of winning.
In reality, I’m far more interested in Macri’s efforts to turn around Argentina than I am in American politics, but as far as entertainment value, the US presidential race wins hands down.
Here’s the story…
By David Galland
He stepped into the office and took a deep breath.
The intake carried with it a smell, a smell like none other. Leather, aged wood, a faint scent of fresh flowers, time, history.
“Wow,” his companion answered breathlessly.
“If I had told anyone in the world we’d be standing here even a year ago, no one would have believed me. No one.”
“I just wish I had placed some bets. Christ, I coulda gotten 1,000 to 1. They would have been even higher if I had told ‘em it was all a stunt.”
“Which, of course, we’ll never tell anyone, right?”
“I’m many things, but I’m not stupid,” the man said as he walked around the large desk, eased himself gingerly into the comfortable leather chair, tilted back, and patted his hair.
“No, sir, you’re not stupid. You’re president of the United States.”
“Yeah, but now what?”
“I dunno, you do whatever presidents do.”
“I got that. But what the hell do I know? It was all just a stunt. A publicity stunt.”
“And yet the rubes still voted you in. Amazing!”
“Especially after I kept trying to throw it. I mean, a stunt’s a stunt and all that, but nobody got it!”
“In all fairness, you tried. I mean, you insulted the entire Hispanic population, then when that didn’t do it, you insulted all of the women, all of the Muslims, the blacks, the Chinese, the gays, all liberals. Hell, you even went after the darling of Fox fucking network with that whole bleeding from the eyes and everywhere else crack! And yet you still got elected!”
“I know! It makes no sense!”
“I guess at the end of the day, people were just fed up with the same old, same old.”
“Or, actually, it was just that the rest of the pack were such morons. So now they got me? Well, good luck to us all.”
“Ah, you’ll do fine. You always land on your feet. Besides, we can always do like the last idiot and play a lot of golf.”
“Or we could actually try to make some changes. You know, I’ve got ideas. Lots of ideas. And now that I’m the most powerful man in the world, I can’t see what’s going to stop me from carrying them out. Am I right?”
“I don’t know. Look, a stunt is a stunt and all of that, and as far as stunts go, this was maybe the biggest one ever. But we’re talking about real life here. Sure you have ideas, but anything you do is going to have consequences. Big consequences.”
Trump leaned forward and stared his companion directly in the eyes.
“You’ve been a great help to me, but I’m telling you that the more I think about it, the more I want to actually do something as president.”
“Are you sure that’s such a good idea? I mean, really?”
“I call the shots, and either you’re on board or you’re fired, got it?”
“Aw, c’mon Donald, it’s me—your buddy. Don’t talk like that.”
“I’ll talk to you any goddamn way I want, I’m the fucking president of the United States! I can make some big things happen, historical things. I think I’ll start with the wall between us and the Mexicans, people seem to like that idea. Then we’ll teach those pushy Chinese bastards a lesson about dumping their crap over here. And Putin, that smug son of a bitch, I’ll really turn the screws on him. And the Middle East, oh man, I can’t wait to get started with that snake nest!”
His companion fell into a chair across from The Donald, said a silent prayer, then quietly replied, “Yes, Mister President.”
Sitting in the lobby of the hotel in San Pedro de Atacama, kick-starting the brain with a morning cup of coffee, I was startled by a loud yelp from a gray-haired American woman reading from a Kindle.
As I wiped the spilled coffee from my hand and wondered what tragedy had occurred, the woman loudly gave voice to the source of her shock: “Ohhhhh myyyyy, TRUMPPPP has all but swept the Super Tuesday states!!!”
She then hoisted herself onto her pins and ran into the breakfast room to share the terrible news with others from her tour group.
While I find many of The Donald’s proposed policies to be block-headed, counterproductive, and downright dangerous, there’s no question he is turning the US political scene on its head and sending the empty suits on both sides of the aisle into apoplectic shock.
It’s been a long time since the political elite and their masters in the media have been revealed for the frauds they are, so I have to count that as a positive for the Donald’s candidacy.
Regardless, the thing about the democratic system is that even a majority of one takes the prize. In that regard, I can assure you the Republicans would be as unhappy living under Hillary as the Democrats will be living under The Donald. Yet, for four or maybe eight years, the losers will have to suck it up and do just that.
Or you can do as we have done and instead of voting for the lesser of two evils, vote with your feet. It’s a big, beautiful world—don’t be a mushroom.
And with that I will sign off for now, hoping to be back with another chapter from the trail next week… but probably the week after.
Until then, may you stay firmly in the saddle.