Local residents stay positive on summer trip cut short by ash


Staff Writer
What started out as a grand adventure for some Liberty Hill residents, ended up placing them in the middle of a catastrophe. But for former Liberty Hill High School teacher Van Calvin, it was easy to keep a good attitude about it.

Calvin, Liberty Hill Real Estate Agent Suzy Bates, LHHS Graduate Ashton Combs and her boyfriend Jason Fasel set out on June 16th from Dallas to go to Honolulu, Sydney, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. It’s the type of trip Calvin has organized often.

A desire for cheap world travel put him in touch with the tour group Explorica, which helps educators assemble tour groups at discounted rates. Previously he has traveled to Washington D.C., London, Florence and other European cities with a variety of groups with no major calamity.

“I’ve been lucky,” he says with a chuckle. “I’ve never had anyone get hurt, lost or arrested.”

After a few relaxing days in Hawaii, touring Pearl Harbor, enjoying a luau, visiting Waikiki Beach and shopping at the International Market, the group flew to Sydney, Australia. While there, they visited the famed Sydney Opera House, the building which won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor, in 2003, toured Darling Harbor and enjoyed some nice meals in Sydney’s Chinatown.

It was in Sydney that they woke up to devastating headlines. Chile’s Mt. Puyehue Cordon Caulle volcano had erupted on June 4th, and the volcanic plume was returning to Australia, grounding all flights out of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

“That volcanic ash,” says Calvin, “It’s just like sand to an airplane engine, and it can cause the entire plane to go down.”

On June 21st, the plume had reached altitudes between 20,000 and 40,000 feet, interrupting the air space of large passenger jets, which typically fly between 18,000 and 60,000 feet. The group was stuck in Sydney.

“I was basically disappointed for them. I’ve been to New Zealand, but they hadn’t,” he said.

Calvin kept a good attitude about the experience though, noting, “If you’re going to be stuck somewhere, Sydney, Australia, is not a bad place to be.”

The group set about exploring Sydney further, visiting Bondi Beach, a world-renowned surfing beach, and enjoying the local culture.

“Australians have a little saying, ‘no worries,’ which they basically say all the time. If you bump into someone and say ‘excuse me,’ they always come back with ‘no worries.’ They’re just very laid-back, and I love that accent,” says Calvin.

Calvin’s trips started in the late 1990’s with school trips to Washington D.C. One year, during the trip’s organization, Washington D.C. was buried under snow and there was an Anthrax scare that had shut the district down.

“It was then that I started looking at Europe,” he said. On his first trip, he took 48 students to England, France and Italy. After his retirement from teaching in 2001, Calvin tried a variety of things before settling into his current role – a stay-at-home grandfather to three of his four grandchildren.

“Vanessa (Calvin’s daughter) had just had her baby, and needed a babysitter. So I was lucky, I got to stay home and do that. We get to hang out all the time,” he said.

Though the group ended up coming home a day early, Calvin called the trip a success. So successful in fact, that he has already started planning his next trip.

“It will likely be in June 2013. The current plan is to hit Hawaii, Cairns, Queensland to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, Auckland, New Zealand for a traditional Mari feast. On this next trip, he will be taking his grandkids.

“They’ll be old enough to travel well, and I want to see all this stuff with them,” he said.