Chilean Chronicles, Part XXVIII: Meeting Dr. Juan Zuchel at Cerro San Cristobal

If there’s one thing Dunreith and I have learned in our first five weeks here in Chile, it’s that there are no end of places to meet people here.

I met augmented reality ace and entrepreneur Eduardo Rivera at last month’s Data Tuesday, held at innovation space Movistar Innova.

I met Juan, a nine-year-old Colombian boy who had moved here four months ago with his mother, at the Federal Police Station in downtown Santiago.

I met Gonzalo and Jacqui Salazar while trying to get out of the civil registry compound to get a copy made of a page that the female bureaucrat said was insufficiently clearly written.

And, today, we met doctor, author, half-marathoner, two-time husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and Concepcion loyalist Juan Zuchel close to the summit of Cerro San Cristobal.

We were on a quest to make the four-mile trek so that we could approach, and even touch, the massive white statue of the Virgin Mary.

It’s not that I’m suddenly considering becoming Catholic. Rather, it’s that we can see the statue from the balcony where we’ve already been treated to all manner of gorgeous sunsets. On Thursday night, during a pleasant evening with several Santiago-based Fulbrighters, we learned from two of them who jog daily up to the top that it’s a very pleasant run and an accessible trail and decided to check it out for ourselves.

By the time we met Juan, we had already passed a determined group of red-jacketed and red-shirted striking postal workers gathered at Pio Nono, a major Santiago intersection that leads into the funky Bellavista neighborhood that’s heavy on lapislazuli shops and student eating and drinking options. (The University of Chile is right nearby.)

A number of workers appeared to have slept in tents next to the Rio Mapocho.

Striking postal workers near the Rio Mapocho.

Striking postal workers near the Rio Mapocho.

According to the Santiago Times:

The workers are asking postal service Correos de Chile — an autonomous state enterprise — for a 50,000 peso (US$97) raise per month. This figure was negotiated two years ago, according to Jessica Havia, the secretary of the National Postal Workers Syndicate (SOP). Already irritated over the delay in payment, new raises for managerial staff pushed workers to strike.

But if the workers were irritated, they certainly didn’t show it.

Like yesterday, they were chanting, singing, blowing whistles and horns and seeking to collect money from passersby in an effort to keep going as the strike extends to the end of its second week.

Striking workers blowing horns near Pio Nono.

Striking workers blowing horns near Pio Nono.

Dunreith and I walked to the left of the park where we had been our first weekend in Chile and started our trek up the mountain.

We had plenty of company.

A stream of walkers, bikers, bike-walking bikers, joggers, and cars also made their way toward the summit.

Although it’s still winter, the temperatures stretched upward of 75 degrees. As if often the case, Dunreith had more foresight than me and put on sun block.

But, though we brought a dozen tiny clementines that Dunreith had purchased yesterday at the Tirso de Molina market, neither of us had brought water. This omission started to take its toll as we wound our way around the sun-exposed asphalt surface.

The air got clearer as we rose in altitude, and we were increasingly able to see the smog that hangs over the city like a cloud and that seems, almost magically, to work its way into our two-room apartment at rates that requires twice, if not thrice, daily, cleanings.

Beyond the smog, we were also able to see the snow-capped Andes.

I took a series of pictures using the panorama feature, including one that also featured the multi-story gleaming glass cell phone building.

A panorama of Chile from near the top of Cerro San Cristobal. The cell phone tower is toward the left of the photo.

A panorama of Chile from near the top of Cerro San Cristobal. The cell phone tower is toward the left of the photo.

Enter Dr. Zuchel, who was coming down the mountain.

Clad in a blue t-shirt with a red Z inside a yellow triangular shape over his heart, he had a ring of sweat around his neck. He looked younger than his 68-years, had sturdy legs had propelled him to a second-place finish in his age group during last year’s Santiago half-marathon, and, we learned a little hairless, a nearly hairless chest.

“I call this a monument to consumerism,” he told us.

Juan Zuchel, man of many talents and even more information.

Juan Zuchel, man of many talents and even more information.

This was not the first critical comment we had heard about the structure.

During our first week in Santiago, Alejandra Fritz, our uber-guide at Pablo Neruda’s house La Chascona, fired a salvo against it, too.

It was fortunate that Don Pablo did not live to see this built because he would have had a direct view from his home and would not have liked it, she said.

For Juan, the anti-cell phone tower statement was only the beginning of his conversational gambit.

In short order, he informed us that he was from Concepcion and that he was both a surgeon and a forensic doctor who taught at the University of Concepcion, the most beautiful university in the land. (Here he dipped his head to show us the university’s name on his yellow hat.)

Juan also told us that he had a German father and Chilean mother, but could only speak a little German. He has four daughters and one son from his first wife and two daughters from his second one. He has seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. One of the children is a doctor, while two others are psychologists, he told us after urging us to walk with him toward the summit.

Juan also let us know that he has written seven books about everything from love to children’s literature, that the entire area of Concepcion would support Michelle Bachelet, the former president who is currently seeking re-election, and that the pediatrician and former torture survivor would earn a decisive victory in November.

I also suffered under Pinochet, he told me as we continued walking closer and closer to the top. When I asked him for more details, he said that he had been detained repeatedly, but not tortured.

I can’t lie, he said.

I told Juan that I hadn’t know how divided the country still was about the Pinochet era, adding that I had spoken with many people who offered freely their opinions that life was more orderly, respectful and generally better during the dictatorship than in the 23 years since he left power in 1990.

It all depends on your circle and how much it affected you, he answered.

The conversation was flowing easily and the increasing presence of tourist wares told us that the summit was getting closer and closer.

But, amidst all of Juan’s sharing, one part confused me; he kept telling us that he was looking for his green family car.

It’s got to be somewhere, he told me early in our conversation.

Where exactly that somewhere would be was not clear to me.

There appeared to be both no car that color anywhere in sight as well as absolutely no room in either lane for said car to park, if indeed it actually existed.

Juan kept referring to the car throughout our conversation and trek upward, which lasted about 20 minutes.

I found myself torn between wondering if his car was the Chilean version of Mr. Snuffleupagus, or if this was the entry point to some request for us to lend him money to get down to the bottom of the mountain on a funicular.
We arrived to the top. Juan waved us through the gates and told us he would meet us inside since he had to wait for the auto.

We smiled, inwardly shook our heads, and gratefully gulped down the water, Gatorade and reheated mushroom and cheese empanada we bought from a stand near the end of a row. We walked up dozens of cobbled steps toward the massive white statue of the Virgin Mary, her arms uplifted to the heavens.

Like I do when I reach the halfway point of lengthy runs, I felt compelled to touch the structure before we turned to start making our way back down the mountain.

We walked past rows of neatly manicured and multicolored flowers as the strains of solemn religious music washed through the air.

Dunreith, who had just had a small bite of the empanada, brightened when she saw a stand where she could buy ice cream.

His back turned to us, Juan was standing there with a young girl with straight, blond hair.

He had shed the hat and was wearing a white t-shirt that declared his allegiance to the band Los Jaivas, a group whose members have mixed rock with South American ancestral music for the past half-century. (Juan had just seen one of their concerts the night before.)

After a quick consultation with Dunreith, I tapped him on the shoulder.

Juan turned.

His eyes gleamed when he saw us.

This is my youngest daughter, he said. I met my family.

So he had.

They were there, sitting on the brick ledge that lined the steps across from the ice cream shop.

From left, Juan Zuchel's daughter Florencia, his daughter Francisca and his wife Valeska.

From left, Juan Zuchel’s daughter Florencia, his daughter Francisca and his wife Valeska.

His wife Valeska and second-youngest daughter Francisca.

His cousin Jaime, his wife Belen, their daughter Alejandra and granddaughter Ximena.

We chatted for a while.

Did he tell you that he’s written books? Belen asked.

He did, I replied. One book for every day of the week. He also told me about being a surgeon and forensic doctor, about running 10 half-marathons and about teaching at the University of Concepcion.

He told you a lot, Valeska said meaningfully, her tone suggesting that her husband’s loquaciousness was an occasional, if not frequent, source of irritation for her.

I talk a lot, but I don’t say much, I responded,then laughed much harder than anyone else in the group.

We moved on to other topics, like whether Francisca had a boyfriend (she did), and whether Alejandra might be interested in my brother Jon (She appeared intrigued, but Jon’s never having been married at 43, and, perhaps more important, the thousands of miles between their homes seemed to present a prohibitive barrier for her.)

The conversation was just at the point when it could have started to expand and go in all kinds of directions when Juan intervened.

Let’s go to the Virgin, he said.

His family rose as if they were a single person.

We hugged and kissed each other.

Before the family departed, I asked all of them to write their names down so that I could remember them.

More hugs and kisses, and the family started walking to their destination.

Dunreith and I turned to go, but, before we did, I read the names.

We’ll wait for you in Concepcion, Francisca had written in large blue letters, an explanation point with a strong line emphasizing her point at the end of the sentence.

I don’t know if we’ll go to Chile’s largest city, or, if we do, whether we’ll see Juan’s family.

But I do know that our time here has shown again and again the myriads of people, each of whom has their own unique story and particular desire to connect, that exist in this country, and in the world.

We didn’t need to come to Chile to learn this, of course.

And somehow being here and new and outsiders and open has allowed us to see this more than usual, and to benefit from the exchanges.

Tomorrow, Dunreith and I will go for a walk, see a museum or explore a new part of Santiago.

I can’t wait to see who we meet.

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