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When you travel with a head of state, everything is about security… and transportation. The presidential plane, the presidential helicopter, the presidential motorcade – these are the trappings by which we recognize the power and prestige of the office.
It’s no different for the presidents themselves. They seriously dig these luxury power symbols – special security limos, boats, big jets. But cooler still, these presidential rides wait for no one. The airspace is literally cleared for them.
Indeed, when our past presidents talk about what they miss most about the job, it’s usually not being Commander-In-Chief, or the White House or the cheering crowds. No, the one thing they talk about missing most… is Air force One.
It’s big, it’s luxurious and it has its own shower.
We too were on a presidential plane – for the President of Mexico. We were producing a travel program about the country and its president. His plane, at the time, was a nicely outfitted 757, with the sentimental name of Avion Presidente Juarez – after President Benito Juarez, who served in the 19th century.
Besides this big personal aircraft, the Mexican President, his staff and security team also moved about on a fleet of well-appointed helicopters. These sleek transports could easily seat 16 passengers each.
Mexico is a pretty big country, but for the most part, when shooting on this particular production, we didn’t always sleep at our locations. Instead, we took what I called ‘day trips’ to the various states.
We would start our day in Mexico City, fly a thousand miles on the 757 and then transfer to choppers to get to our location.
Come evening, we just reversed the process and usually got back to Mexico City by midnight and to our own hotel rooms. No need to pack or unpack.
A few thousand-mile commute? No big deal. This was traveling presidential style.
The flight attendants on the presidential plane were always relaxed and greeted us with smiles. They gave us menus with lots of choices and the seats were wide and comfy.
I’ll Have My Usual
One of my favorite breakfasts on these early morning flights was a Mexican dish called, Chilaquiles- cut up corn tortillas, fried with chicken, cheese and salsa. It was served up on monogrammed presidential plates and was one of their specialties.
This was such a great way to go to work - chauffeured, lots of good food. Everybody’s happy and all excited about the day ahead. Life was good at 30,000 feet.
The President was accompanied by Mexico’s First Lady and their three children. The kids were cute, well-behaved and didn’t seem at all spoiled by this amazing lifestyle. They had been living like this for almost six years so they may not have even remembered anything but flying on their own plane.
Our production had commuted in this manner for shoots to the archaeological sites of Chichen Itza, Calakmul and Palenque, and the colonial town of San Cristobol de las Casas. We were running and gunning, collecting lots of vivid footage for our show.
A Different Kind of Ancient
Now we were flying off to a place that had only been discovered in the last 30 or so years. When I say ‘discovered’, I don’t mean ‘re-discovered’, as in man once knew this place and then it was lost to time.
No. No one knew about this particular area and the wonders here… not until around 1977. It wasn’t until then researchers discovered the mariposas. Perhaps as many as a billion of them. This is where they came to live, at least for part of the year.
In the state of Michoacan, in a volcanic area of pine forests, hundreds of millions of migrating monarch butterflies somehow find their way here every autumn. They travel in groups of 20 million on a 3,000 mile journey from the eastern United States and Canada.
This extraordinary sanctuary had been given the name, Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca - or for we gringos on the shoot, The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. This was a specially protected forest for one of the most striking natural events on the planet.
The butterflies “winter” here for about 4 months – roughly November through March – before heading back north in the Spring. This would be a perfect time to view them.
We had left Mexico City a short while before and were happily shoveling away at our Presidential breakfasts, when our flight began its descent on this, the first of five transportation legs that would bring us up close to the butterflies or mariposas.
I quickly finished up my chilaqueles and looked over our schedule.
Next up, we would transfer from the Presidential plane to four Eurocopter Super Puma choppers waiting for us on the runway. They would fly us over the surrounding forest to the edge of the Monarch Reserve.
There, we would haul our gear from the choppers to ten waiting SUV’s and travel the narrow roads up into the hills.
When those roads were defeated by the dense and steep terrain, we would offload once more and be met by a team of forty horses. Forty horses!
It was here that the true enormity of this day’s feast of transportation really hit me. Stepping up to the waiting herd saddled and ready for us, I marveled at the President’s staff who had somehow wrangled all this equine tonnage.
We were each assigned a mount and began our steady Presidential procession into the thick forest. We, who only an hour before had been dining at 500 miles per hour on a 757 were now plodding along a muddy trail and down the steep, volcanic slopes to the waiting butterflies.
Looking at the train of horses stretching ahead into the woods with its elite cargo of the president, first family, advisors, assistants, security and the crew - conjured an image of how royalty must have journeyed centuries before.
It was as if we were traveling in a Mexican Sherwood Forest and we were the king’s entourage of courtiers, attendants, knights, stewards, squires and media team. All of us on an outing to witness something so fantastic it was to be kept a royal secret.
Indeed, it appeared that the reserve had been closed off to the public for our visit.
We rode like this for maybe 25 minutes and when the terrain was deemed too narrow and rocky for the horses, we dismounted. Then we utilized the fifth and final form of transportation of this sojourn- our own legs. We walked the rest of the way into the heart of the reserve.
A Sound Like No Other
At first there really didn’t seem to be anything different here – just a bunch of trees. But then a second glance brought us into the realm of shape-shifting.
The pine and oyamel trees all around us seemed to be pulsing and breathing and actually bending under the weight of thousands of butterflies. Hundreds of trees shivered with an orange tint, colored by the butterflies’ bright wings.
In just moments we had left a world dominated by man and had entered some other kind of kingdom. We were clearly the guests here.
This had a kind of equalizing effect on us – that is, suddenly it didn’t matter who was President and who was just an assistant’s assistant. We were all somewhat humbled by the forces that had orchestrated this other parallel world.
As we moved under these countless insects, the forest was quiet, as if the butterflies were whispering amongst themselves. I was hoping they knew we came in peace… because we were so incredibly outnumbered.
If these had been attack butterflies, we wouldn’t stand a chance. There were enough of them to easily lift us into the air and carry us away to the butterfly queen or whomever.
We quietly set up our gear and started shooting. As the sun rose higher over the forest roof, it warmed us and also the butterflies. They began to take flight. First just a few of them, which was enchanting.
Soon, many more joined the random aerial ballet, swirling about. As the heat increased, thousands more left the trees to flutter and blanket us. The air was dense with their little wings.
As a child, I remember it was always a special moment to spot a butterfly. I would chase after it, happy with the few seconds I had to follow its heavenly path. Then it was gone.
Here, one could get drunk on the volume of butterflies filling the air. It was almost crushing.
We heard a strange sound echoing about, almost like rain. It was the sound of tens of thousands of gossamer wings beating…. This had to be the only place on earth you could actually hear butterflies in flight.
I didn’t know it was even possible. And it kind of made me wonder what else was happening on this earthly plane we’re not seeing or hearing or aware of. How much more are we missing and not enjoying?
These millions of tiny creatures each weigh less than a gram so it was rather ironic that to engineer our visit we had to employ thousands of pounds of horses.
Plus tens of thousands of pounds of trucks and helicopters. And about two hundred thousand pounds of jet liner. Just to get to this place where these delicate mariposas easily slipped in on currents of air.
We finished our shoot and so reversed the transportation supply chain: foot, horses, trucks, choppers and the 757.
To sustain themselves, the butterflies live on the tiniest sips of flower nectar. This is what powers their 3,000 mile journey.
We, on the other hand, relied on thousands of pounds of aviation fuel, hundreds of gallons of gasoline, who knows how much horse feed and of course, many platefuls of chilaqueles.
We had come hundreds of miles to see the monarch butterflies and now we were returning to Mexico City. They would soon begin their own journey back north. We each had our assignments.
Why did they migrate, spending their lives racking up serious miles? These Mexican forests seemed like a fine place to hang. Why not just settle here, south of the border, like thousands of retirees do?
I know animals have innate drives which they don’t question, but if one’s life-cycle was truly awful wouldn’t they just adapt and stay in one place? So then, perhaps the answer is this: for the monarch, they enjoy this migrating gig.
I've done a fair amount of traveling myself and I enjoy it. For me, it's fun.
Maybe for them, it’s just day after day of fun. Hang with your crowd, sip nectar and travel the Americas. It’s a non-stop vacation. Not a bad way to live out one’s short butterfly life.