It is early morning and the clouds from the Pacific Ocean have parked as usual over Lima. Above the Peruvian capital with its multi-million population, a thick layer of cloud bathes everything in a uniform greyish hue. Well, almost everything. A decal showing a small eagle stuck below one headlamp on a golden-yellow Volvo FH12 glows in every colour of the rainbow, as though it has taken over the sun’s rays all by itself. As José Astete Torres performs his regular safety check on his truck, it is this little eagle that catches his last glance before he climbs nimbly up into the cab to set off on his day’s shift.
“That’s my lucky charm,” he says and smiles quietly. He explains:
“The eagle is the very symbol of strength and precision. It can dive down from an immense altitude, strike with millimetre precision at a fleeing animal and then power upwards again, carrying its heavy prey in its claws. These are the same properties I expect of my truck – and that’s why the eagle is so important to me.”
In another few hours’ time I’ll understand just what he means. At the moment, however, the need for a good-luck charm doesn’t seem particularly urgent. We’re parked in a fenced-off garage right beside Lima’s industrial port. The cargo platform is empty and the fuel tank is full. It’s a quiet morning, even though the gradually increasing noise level from the city beyond the front gate says the picture is soon going to be quite different.
José Astete Torres is a truck driver for Simsa, a company that for almost 65 years has been one of Peru’s leading producers of zinc and lead. The company’s output of 65 thousand tonnes a year is shipped to mineral-hungry industries the world over.
Measured in volume, zinc is the fourth largest metal in world trade, after iron, aluminium and copper. Half of all zinc is used as an anti-corrosion agent for steel, the other half mainly in batteries and in alloys, like brass.
The garage is José’s starting-point. Every second day he starts off from here to fetch his load of zinc concentrate, a kind of refined zinc ore, from the company’s mine in San Ignacio more than 300 kilometres away in the country’s heartland. Or rather: in the country’s “upland”. Because to get to the mine, he has to climb up to 5,000 metres above sea level. He has to cross the top of the Andes mountain chain, pass through three climate zones and navigate through what can be referred to politely as somewhat chaotic traffic, before it’s time to turn around and head back for home with a full load on board.
And all that within the space of a few hours. It starts as soon as we leave the garage. José crawls along the congested roads of the port district. Even at this speed he has to brake to negotiate potholes or just to avoid other road-users determined to steal his particular patch of tarmac in the increasingly hectic morning rush-hour traffic.
“The traffic is the toughest part of my job, especially the buses,” he says and points to a white minibus which with its accelerator to the floor and people hanging on in the open doorway swerves abruptly into our lane just a metre or so in front of the huge Volvo’s front bumper.
“Many of these drivers have never had a driver’s licence, they’re always in a hurry and when they turn they don’t bother with luxuries like turn indicators or any other signals. We generally plan our driving to follow the bus routes. It’s far safer to shadow them than to meet them when they’re out hunting for passengers!”
After an hour or so we pass Lima’s city limits. As the bustling metropolis disappears behind us, the air clears. The sun appears in the sky. The road’s steadily steeper gradient is firm proof of where we are headed: up the mythical slopes of the famous Andes.
I can trace Peru’s centuries-old Inca heritage in the rural population’s colourful clothing, the twisted contours of the terraced farming plots and the occasional tongue-twister of a village name. Here, in the very heart of South America, the Inca Indians created an advanced civilisation long before the Spaniards and Portuguese found their way here from faraway Europe.
When we’re just over halfway up the mountain side, at about 3,000 metres, the air suddenly begins to taste and feel noticeably thinner. Every movement is an effort, every heartbeat a reminder of the tough conditions outside our cab windows.
A tired old Volvo N7 ahead of us illustrates how difficult life can be in these parts. Its slow struggle to fight its way up the mountain, engine roaring as it hauls its full load, reflects in a strange way the growing feeling of disquiet inside my lungs.
As José glides smoothly past it in his brand-new FH12, he fires off another of his broad smiles.
“Been there, done that! I started driving trucks back in 1975, in that particular model in fact. Since then I’ve driven just about everything there is. All through those years I’ve had to fight for every metre I’ve climbed up the mountain, sometimes barely moving ahead. Now, however, things move much more quickly, both uphill and down.
There is one detail that has really changed his everyday working conditions. José’s truck is equipped with VEB, Volvo’s powerful engine brake – something that has cut his travelling time by a quarter by allowing him to drive more quickly yet safely down the steep slopes of the Andes.
12, 13 hours of heart-in-the-mouth driving have today been cut to ten safe and comfortable hours behind the wheel, a fact he emphasises with a serious note in his voice.
“I save time, which I can spend on extra rest and relaxation and more thorough safety inspections. This makes for far safer driving. In addition, I reduce my vulnerability to thieves and marauders on the road. In the evening, in particular, the risk of robbery is a major problem, it creates a constant knot of tension in your chest. Nowadays, however, I always get to our designated rest locations well before the sun sets.”
For many decades, Volvo was the only truck manufacturer with its own factory in Peru. The trucks assembled here were both more durable and better configured than the competition, a fact Peruvians took to their hearts over the years. Today all production has been moved to Brazil but Volvo’s reputation as the market’s “state-of-the-art” brand still lives on.
José Astete Torres puts it his own way:
“You know: Volvo is Volvo!”
We’ve reached the top. A biting, icy wind confirms that we’ve left Lima’s moist coastal climate way behind us. A large road sign gives us the hard facts: 4,818 metres above sea level – in just four hours of driving!
From here José will head east to the jungle on the other side of the ridge where Simsa’s zinc mine is located. What awaits him there is 30-degree heat, sticky clay tracks and mosquitoes … He laughs as he drops me by the roadside, where I stand white-faced, my lungs gasping with every breath of air.
“Soroche!” he says, “Against altitude sickness there’s only one remedy: coca tea and a lot of rest!”
Just as he presses the accelerator I catch a glimpse of the eagle on the front of the truck.
For an instant I could have sworn it was winking at me.
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