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  • One afternoon in Cali, in the early summer of 1962, Hunter Thompson watched as a wealthy British expatriate drove golf balls off the terrace of his downtown penthouse apartment. The tubby Brit chatted nonchalantly as the white orbs rose and then fell, eventually landing somewhere amid the sheet-metal roofs of the impoverished neighborhood below.

    So begins, "Why Anti-Gringo Winds Often Blow South of the Border," arguably Thompson's story from South America that made the most waves. In 2000 words, he outlines a cycle of gradual disillusionment, cynicism, and hostile superiority, one that he sees playing out among many North American businessmen, bureaucrats, and NGO-types in Latin America. It's a fatalistic essay, describing gringos who are thrust into the role of the elite, then pressured to mimic the behavior of their wealthy local counterparts before tumbling inescapably into what Thompson sees as a deep and almost unbridgeable cultural gap.

    "Now, looking back on that man with the golf club," he writes, "it is easy to see him as a fool and beast. But I recall quite well how normal it seemed at the time, and how surprised I would have been if any of the dozen people on the terrace had jumped up to protest."

    Central Cali today is a thick forest of high-rise apartments, many built during the dramatic real-estate boom that accompanied the peak money-laundering days of the Cali cartel. In the 1990s, the whole city's economy rose on the high tide of narcotrafficking, and the skyline in 2012 remains a conspicuous glut of luxury apartment towers.

    I spent much of yesterday trying to get into one, hoping to soak up some of the colossus perspective and cold isolation that Thompson attributes to his adrift Anglo-Saxons. If you're looking for a concrete manifestation of the distance between rich and poor, a high-rise penthouse is hard to beat. Particularly in an urban South American landscape, where movement and noise on the ground simply never stop. Here, the penthouse is equal parts fortress and sensory deprivation chamber. From anywhere on the streets of downtown, a guy can crane his neck and spot a half-dozen rooftop oases, each impossibly distant and ringed with palms.

    But few doormen or guards, it turns out, are willing to let a sweaty gringo with a backpack wander freely throughout their buildings. Or even enter them, with or without a "fee." Under a midday Cali sun, I negotiated my way across the city's downtown. After hours of fruitless inquiries, I was ready to give up. And that's when I saw the sign for the apartmento modelo at the new Normandie Exclusivo building.

    The Normandie Exclusivo sits atop a steep hill just north of downtown, the slope of which is already crowded with elegant and vaguely modernist apartment towers. Or anyway, the Normandie Exclusivo will sit atop it, once it's finished in the second half of 2013. For now, the hilltop site is a mess of sky-high scaffolding, construction equipment, dirt tracks, and one genuinely stunning model penthouse overlooking the sprawl below.

    A steely associate named Maria looked at me skeptically when I stepped inside, but when I explained that my parents were considering relocating to Colombia — and that they would love to see some fotografas of a potential new condo — she eagerly showed me a scale model of the development, then took me on a room-by-room tour. And that was that. After a long, sweaty day of supplication, getting access to a penthouse was as simple as playing the rich gringo card.

    Once inside, I paused at the spot where the living room opened into a clean, wide terrace. Then I tried to picture the golfer, the upward arc of his swing and the long, level trajectory of a ball disappearing into the city.

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.
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