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I have a few fears. I’m not afraid to admit it. One is a fear of heights, particularly when relying on human-engineered machinery; the second is enclosed spaces. Elevators are a contraption designed by the devil to test both my phobias.

Part One: As High As Heaven
Cable cars have brought me to my knees; a trembling, whimpering wreck – and that’s before they leave the base station. I don’t do cable cars or ski lifts any more. I had often looked at helicopters and thought – “You’ve got to be nuts to travel in one of those”. I mean, seriously, if the engine stops you drop. I’ve heard there is a technique of spinning that can decrease the rate of descent, but if you are at 12,000 feet or higher is that really going to help? I don’t think so.

In my role as Assistant Deputy Minister I was privileged to promote our province and our local firms in markets around the world. One of the markets we focused on was Mexico, particularly the State of Jalisco (Capital Guadalajara).

I led a number of trade missions to Guadalajara and accompanied trade ministers and a premier there on trade and cultural exchanges. I used to particularly enjoy it when partnering with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet which I did in Guadalajara, Chicago and London. It was a great job, although stressful. Trade missions are hard work. We would start the day with briefings over breakfast at 7 am and go non-stop till about midnight each day. Then it was time to write up the trip reports and action plans for follow up to that day’s meetings and reset the schedule and prepare the briefing for the next day’s events and meetings.

On a long mission we would try to take a ‘rest day’ about every seventh day or so. On one such ministerial trip to Guadalajara, I was supporting my minister who happened to be a geologist.  During a meeting with the Governor and his staff my minister asked if there would be time for us to visit the volcano at Colima, as we had scheduled a ‘down day’ for the coming Saturday. The volcano is located in the neighbouring state. We were told that there wouldn’t be time to drive there and back in one day. The governor’s chief of staff whispered to the governor who nodded, and that was when my fate was sealed! The governor offered to lend the minister one of his helicopters to take us to Colima, see the volcano, carry on and see the Port of Manzanillo (an important transportation hub for his state) and fly back by way of Puerto Vallarta so we could see the main tourist region of the governor’s state.

(to see images and read about the Colima Volcano click here)

The minister was very enthusiastic and how could we possibly reject such a generous offer. Everything was set for the coming Saturday. My life flashed before my eyes! “I’m so young, and with so much to live for” – I don’t think I said it out loud, but I did notice some glances in my direction.

The minister knew that I was less than keen on flying in a helicopter and did offer to let me stay behind. But it’s not done to abandon one’s minister. I was stuck. The next two nights were restless ones! Early on Saturday we were picked up and driven to the airport where the governor kept his two helicopters. These were big helicopters with dual engines and each had a capacity for eight passengers. But they were still helicopters. We were all strapped in – I was facing the rear so I could more easily speak to the minister. That meant I was facing backwards. The engines got louder – very loud in fact and the body of the helicopter started to vibrate alarmingly. But then a funny thing happened. The earth started to fall away and the people on the ground became smaller. There was no sense of us lifting up. Then the engine pitch changed as did the rotors and we started forward and gathered speed. The Mexican pilot and copilot didn’t seem to speak English, but the Governor’s assistant translated for us. It turned out to get to Colima and the volcano we had to fly across a mountain range – joy to my ears! “Major Tom to ground control, GET ME OUT OF HERE!”

I have to admit it was a very comfortable helicopter and the pilot was excellent – but there was still a lot of air movement as we moved across the mountains which made the trip quite ‘choppy’. “Are we there yet?” I wanted to ask. The others wanted us to lean over and look out windows “Are you all nuts?” I thought, not wanting to move at all and certainly not wanting to turn my head. Eventually we saw the volcano and started to descend. The governor’s team had arranged for us to have a tour of the research facility at the base of the volcano – I wondered what the volcanist hand signal looked like.  Colima, by the way, is an active volcano. There was smoke coming out the top. We landed in the field by the research facility and all the staff had been called in to meet the minister and give us a tour. One highlight was a film from cameras set up to observe the volcano. There was a beautiful sequence of a huge hole blowing out of the side of the mountain and a great plume of smoke and debris shooting out it’s side. “When did this occur?” we asked. “Yesterday afternoon about the same time as you will be flying round the volcano today”. They weren’t joking, there was a date and time stamp on the film! Have you ever had your stomach feel like it’s turned to water? Have you had your legs turn to jelly? I am sure my face became whiter than the snow they had never seen in Colima.

The second highlight was a huge, and I mean huge, boulder with a brass plaque. This, we were told, had been blown out of the volcano and had travelled many kilometres through the air before coming to rest.  This demonstrated the force of the eruptions this volcano was capable of. My minister was really enjoying herself now. This was more fun than defending our estimates in the house. The only thing better, she said would be to have an earthquake too! You have to be a little strange to go into politics as far as I’m concerned.

All too soon we were back in the helicopter and the pilot was taking us up and around the summit of the 12000 ft volcano. I wished the research director hadn’t sounded so final in his good bye and good luck. The pilot said he would take us as close as possible to the active part of the summit, but it would be a little tricky as the air currents are quite unpredictable with the heat from the volcanic core. He suggested we make sure our seats belts were securely fastened. I had cinched mine so tight I could barely breathe.  We slowly circled the volcano, with the pilot helpfully tilting the helicopter so we could peer into the maw of the monster. Slowly and bumpily we crawled around the great smoking opening.  After we had been round, I started to relax only to hear my minister ask “can we go round again?”  My loud “NO” was drowned out and overruled by the governor’s staff who said “Yes, minister!”. They must have been watching British TV.

Eventually we had to leave the volcano and make the flight over Manzanillo and on to Puerto Vallarta, where we landed to refuel and allow my legs to stop shaking for twenty minutes.

We were parked in a special area of the airport and sat under the shade of a coconut palm. “Would you like some coconut milk Minister?” asked the governor’s assistant. “Thank you yes” she said. At which point one of the men was sent up the palm tree to cut down a few coconuts and chop off the tops so we could drink the milk. He only had his bare feet and a rope, but was up the tree faster than I can get out of my chair in the evening. Definitely less groaning and creaking was involved.

After her drink the minister decided she needed to stretch her legs and started to walk away. The next thing I knew she was headed directly towards the runway. There were several passenger jets lined up waiting to take off. I yelled at her to stop.  Forgetting protocol I yelled out her first name and told her to get the – – – – back here.  It’s really considered bad form to go home without your minister. “Well Premier, the minister decided to take a walk across the runway and that’s when the jet engine sucked her in. I’m sure she didn’t feel much. The media were quite nice about it…”  “What was she doing on the runway you ask Sir, well she had finished her coconut”.  Having saved minister’s life and possibly my career we clambered back on board our friend the helicopter.

I don’t remember much of the shorter return flight to Guadalajara, but was very glad to leave the helicopter. Susan has tried to get me on another, it would have been wonderful to see parts of Hawaii that way – but one helicopter adventure was enough for me.
Next time Part Two: As Deep as Sheol.