By Matt Westby
There’s no such thing as a tea break on the milk truck. Head out before dawn, not back till mid-afternoon, callused hands, sore muscles, come back and do it all again tomorrow.
It’s a tough life – and a smelly one. The white stuff is everywhere. Not cocaine, I should clarify. Milk is collected up in varying-sized canisters that are invariably so full spillages are rife.
Then there’s the splashes that leap up at you when the piping-hot liquid is poured into the giant storage tanks bolted or tied to the floor of the truck. The canisters themselves have seen better days, and cleaner ones. Unscrewing the cap is as much of a health hazard as the fumes coming from the exhaust.
The hardest part, though, is the lifting. Hundreds upon hundreds of litres of fluid need hoisting first into the back of the truck, and then into the tanks. You’re in for a sleepless night if you’re back isn’t up to the task.
Patience also turns out to be a virtue. The truck goes down every windy road, stops at every dwelling, drives over every pothole – and there are a lot of them in rural Colombia – and lets on everyone who needs a lift, no matter how cramped it is in the back. Nothing is missed. If you’re going to do a job, do it properly. That’s a mantra of people out here. Nothing goes to waste is another, least of all milk.
How I ended up meddled up in all this still baffles me. Initially, I was one of those hitching a ride back down into the valley from the mountains, expecting it to be a shortish journey. Next thing I know, everyone else had been dropped off at their respective farm and it was just me, the guy whose job it is to lift the milk into the truck, and a young boy with a bag of sweets who couldn’t stop staring at the gringo trying to divert a stream of leche away from his backpack. And the driver, of course.
I couldn’t well watch the guy go through the full rigmarole of collecting the milk and then returning the canisters to the farms on his own. It would only have lengthened my own journey back to town. So I mucked in, first hesitantly, then full-on, sleeves rolled up and milk all over my hands. The boy wasn’t so forthcoming with assistance; still chewing on his sweets, still staring at the gringo.
The unspoken system we adopted was I’d jump off and collect the canisters while the guy poured the contents into the tanks. Three hours previous I had been a tourist trekking in Sierra Nevada Del Cucuy, about 12 hours north of Bogota; now I was just another link in an Andean production chain, except with more expensive clothes on. I wondered if I would drink any of this milk with a coffee when we eventually reached civilisation. More likely than not, I concluded.
After another couple of hours or so, we ran out of farms, the mountains literally milked dry. When the truck finally rolled into town, I wondered if I might sit down with the man and the driver and chat over tinto or a glass of cool mora, but instead I was given just a nod of recognition.
It was enough for me. As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and a dip of the hat from a man who does this most uncomfortable of jobs seven days a week, not just for a few hours like I had, meant plenty. If anything, I owed him for reminding me what a hard day’s work really is.
Sierra Nevada Del Cocuy: http://www.pnncocuy.com/pictures.html