Here’s what they’re saying about Greg’s Tour in the Los Angeles Times
Read about Greg’s Tour in the Independent Traveler
Unforgettable Adventures in a Lifetime of Traveling
Kermit Holt, Chicago Tribune Travel Editor
For the media to present a story, it must be r-e-a-l-l-y entertaining. Often the truth is embellished or the sensational is emphasized. But with Papua New Guinea’s Cultural Festivals there’s no need to exaggerate – these cultural pow wows are what The Chicago Tribune rightfully calls “one of the 12 travel wonders of the world.” Those who venture to this dance competition and gathering of the tribes say it’s one of the most memorable travel experiences available. One recent traveler said he was going to have to begin a 12 step Photographers Anonymous group, he couldn’t stop taking pictures. Not only can you photograph the most exotic, colorful tribes people imaginable, the tribes people beckon you to take their picture for free. Friendly villagers are so proud to display their finery and culture. They recognize you have traveled all this distance to see them as rare human birds in their beautiful habitat. During the festival, the best pictures are as you watch face paint, feathers, shells, seed pods and other traditional decorations applied as body adornment.
The Cultural Festivals in May, June, August and September each differ. Though I have visited all the Shows in the locations over the decades, the newer, but more traditional Tumbuna Show is my favorite. It’s smaller, with easier to access photo opportunities, there are no fences separating visitors from participants, and there are no interminable political speeches inflicted on everyone in the midday sun. There’s convenient access to the groups; they are in a close-by oval area with shade. Best of all, there are only about forty or so travelers from the “outside world.” Does Size Matter – Does it Make it a Better Fit? The Goroka Show in September is usually the biggest. However, for crowd control the tourists and visitors are kept from the parading tribes people by a barb wire fence. Entrance for those cherished close-ups might be limited to an hour or two, after the energy and film have been spent. Hotel space in town is scarce during this show – and a written confirmation can mean nothing. I saw front desk personnel look at the hotel confirmation as a meaningless piece of paper. No matter how many letters, e-mails, and phone calls one has made, sometimes one is shifted to a less desirable hotel, far, far from town, with possible delays in getting to the Show. Or one takes charter flights for day visits to the festival, not the most desirable option for this renowned event. Also, the Goroka Show has on rare occasion been changed in date or canceled on short notice.
The mid-August Mt. Hagen Show is popular and dependable for the wow factor. Flights, however, especially on the day after the Show can be delayed, creating havoc on one’s itinerary. There are only are only about 180 overseas visitors privileged to attend this two day celebration. This show is combined with a county fair type gathering. My frustrating experience related to the Mt. Hagen Show involves airline delays and complications. Since there are overseas clients gathered for this event, they all depart for international or domestic flights the day the show is over – so expect delayed flights or overbooking complications. It isn’t fun, spending all this time and money to be sitting at an airport for four to seven hours or having to stay an extra overnight because airline priorities are other than what one the overseas visitor might need.
In my 28 years of experience I have seen competing travel companies promise much, and deliver a mixed experience. Some print exciting colorful photos of Papua New Guineans as a brochure cover piece, but don’t travel anywhere near the area where these tribes can be seen. There are many fine honed details which can make a substantive difference to the Highlands Show trip. Verify if the trip is guaranteed to operate, if there is a trip escort and how long the escort has experience with PNG. Choose a trip with an experienced trip escort who can substantively enhance your understanding of the intricacies of this country which has 750 different languages. Does the Sepik River component to the trip have 15 or 45 travelers. Is there a day spent in transit on the open sea?
If visiting Papua New Guinea, make certain to include three days in the most colorful part of the country – the Huli Wigmen area and stay at Ambua Lodge with access to exciting jungle hikes, bird watching, and probably the most authentic, accessible traditional tribes people in the country. Most PNG travelers are experienced , but for this country it’s more important to be well prepared. Most of the festivals are in the Highlands, with a 5,000 to 7,000 ft. elevation, so the air is temperate and conducive to touring. Accommodations are comparable to the great wilderness hotels in Africa. The Cultural Shows substantively add to the cost and the quality of a Papua New Guinea trip. In a world of cultural travels, however, to attend one of these exciting, colorful festivals is to be immersed in sensory overload.
The destination is not value laden, but these tribal “Sing Sings” as the celebrations are called, are surely a worthwhile peak travel adventure. Now when travel has become a big business with hype and sizzle so common, the Highland Shows deliver an authentic travel experience. You will dine out on your stories and photos of the Mudmen, of the famous fierce Huli Wigmen and other tribes people competing in this dance competition. It’s a photographers paradise and armchair anthropologists thrill to the cultural immersion. It’s like being in a “National Geographic cultural documentary” but having nice accommodations and good food at the end of the day. Despite the adverse publicity about rascals, headhunters, cannibals, crime, and malaria, if one chooses an itinerary with a reputable tour operator, one will enjoy a dependable adventure in this ‘land of the unexpected.” Realize travelers and the media frequently embellish the adventures, the hardships, the arduous treks, and the sensational. The stories depict more daring and dangerous adventures than what actually occurred. Since so few people travel to PNG (approximately three to five thousand a year) these stories are seldom refuted. Traveling with a reputable PNG tour operator substantially reduces the risk of a spoiled trip. Note to intrepid travelers: This is a country one does not visit on one’s own. Also, prepare yourself for post trip letdown; one can scarcely find a comparable exotic travel experience. When friends gather for a list of the top travel experiences, you too will will rightfully join the Chicago Tribune in calling the Highlands Show one of the twelve travel wonders of the world. Be ready to edit a huge kaleidoscope of many dazzling photos and travel memories.
Even after a lifetime of travel , after logging more than 2 million miles while visiting 130 countries and island groups, the task of compiling a personal list of a dozen of the world’s most memorable sights is relatively easy.
Listing more would be much harder. If one must stop to think about a certain travel experience, weigh one series of impressions against another, debate in one’s mind whether a particular trip belongs on the list, then obviously neither is truly unforgettable. Each chosen here is so outstanding that this list of 12 all but compiled itself. Choosing the 12 took three or four minutes, putting into words the reason for each inclusion, considerably longer. Here, then, is one traveler’s choice, not necessarily in order of preference, of 12 of the world’s most unforgettable travel experiences:
#3. Papua New Guinea’s Sing-Sing:
Only a few fortunate travelers have witnessed it, but among those who have, this tourist has yet to meet one who would disagree with this statement: Attending the Highlands Sing-Sing, in the now independent country of Papua New Guinea, is one of the most exciting experiences left on Earth.
The gigantic dance ceremony is a home movie fans dream come true: unforgettable color and spectacle and action on a color scale that even the late moviemaker Cecil B. De Mille couldn’t have conjured up (much less carried out) in his wildest fantasies.
And yet there it is, this unbelievable wild show, an experience of a lifetime, going on before your eyes: At least 2,000 – yes, 2,000, sometimes as many as 3,000 – paint-smeared, spear- and battle-ax-carrying tribesmen just steps away from the Stone Age, beplumed and bewigged in the most outlandishly beautiful headdress imaginable, performing in or viewing a 500-ring circus that goes on day and night for 48 hours.
Even the most blasé traveler literally shakes with excitement, finds it difficult to hold his camera steady at the spectacle unfolding before him – sometimes as many as 40,000 warriors performing in the arena at the same time, each in traditional dress of primitive war paint, often in incredibly beautiful bird-of-paradise plumes, each carrying out his own tribe’s highly stylized ritual, swaying and dancing and wailing and chanting in scores of different tongues to the beat of drums.
The ground literally shakes as thousands of feet stamp to primitive rhythms. Lines of warriors rise and dip and plumed headdresses and decorated bamboo frames sway to a sound like that of a locomotive chugging out of the station. Then they let out fierce war cries and stage mock battles with a realism that is positively frightening.
The site alternates between the frontier towns of Mt. Hagen and Goroka, in Goroka in mid-September and in Mt. Hagen (always the larger and more colorful of the two) in late August. Space often sells out nine months in advance!
But whether or not there is a sing-sing going on, a trip to Papua New Guinea at any time is a travel experience long to be remembered.
Although there will not be tens of thousands of tribespeople there, and the ground will not shake, the Highlands Sing-Sing is still one of the most colorful, exciting spectacles imaginable.
Riverboat down the Sepik River, mingle with tribes that create world-famous art, a “haus” tambarans” (spirit houses), bargain for unusual artifacts, and luxuriate at the Karawari and Ambua Lodges, two of the world’s great wilderness hotels amidst exciting “primitive” culture. You will experience a feeling for the land and its peoples, and sense the excitement and exotic colorfulness of a land untouched by mass tourism.
Your escort has years of experience and first hand familiarity with Papua New Guinea and you will join the ranks of those who say these trips provide one of the most exciting, memorable travel experiences in the world!
by Sally McKinney
Santa Barbara school teacher Greg Stathakis leads tours
into the wilds of Papua New Guinea.
In some ways, Greg Stathakis, BA’65, MAT’67, leads a double life. Students at Santa Barbara High School know him as Mr. Stathakis. Along with teaching full-time, he also serves as liaison/consultant for Trans Niugini tours. When school is out, he guides adventurous travelers across rivers, through the jungle, and into the villages of Papua New Guinea. To these hardy trekkers, he is New Guinea Greg.
On a sunny afternoon in May, the California school teacher has already put in seven hours when he leaves the classroom at 3 p.m. Most afternoons, Stathakis walks the mile or so to his hillside home, decorated with fabric wall hangings and artifacts acquired on various world travels. many of the objects-a yam mask, a pig’s tail apron, an iridescent beetle headdress-were acquired on more than a dozen visits to Papua New Guinea (PNG).
At one time, Stathakis represented Trans Niugini Tours in the U.S. market. “it got to be more than I could handle,” Stathakis admits, so he handed over the business to a long -time associate. He now limits his PNG travels to guiding one or two adventure trips a year.
Years of experience have made Stathakis quite knowledgeable about Papua New Guinea, a rugged tropical country north of Australia full of “incredible contrasts and juxtapositions.” Although people on the coasts have had contact with missionaries and traders for more than a century, tribal members in some remote valleys did not see white men until the 1930s. In these regions, the elders still tell stories about hearing “all those bees,” the hum of airplanes that heralded white men’s arrival.
Many of the country’s three million people have retained their tribal identities, languages, and customs. The economy centers around copper mining and agriculture, particularly coffee, cocoa, and coconut (copra).
Much of PNG is still “unspoiled,” reports Stathakis, “as if the Creator had just finished making it.” There are about 3,000 species of orchids, and a many species of birds (about 700)as in all of North America.
“People have one foot in the Stone Age, the other in the Computer Age,” Stathakis says. During a visit to parliament, he once heard a discussion of multinational company contracts during the same session that members debated the licensing of witch doctors.
One of Those Teachers
Stathakis was not always so cosmopolitan. When he arrived in Bloomington to begin his college career, he discovered that his dorm held three times as many students as his entire high school, St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, Wisc.
“With so many possibilities in terms of clubs and organizations,” he recalls, “I really flourished.” Working on the Indiana Daily Student, Stathakis responded to an ad in the paper and got his first travel job-helping coordinate the IU School of Music’s plans for a production of Turandot at the New York World’s Fair.
In 1967, after completing an MAT in speech and theater, the Hoosier-born schoolteacher took a job in Santa Barbara. Now, when he relaxes on the deck of his California home, Stathakis enjoys reminiscing. Behind him is a backdrop of jungle-like trees, and Balinese prayer flags sway gently in the wind.
At age 23, he was just a few years older than the students. He remembers one student saying, “We know Mr. Stathakis isn’t pulling weeds and grading papers on weekends. he’s not one of those teachers.” “Now, decades later, as I’m hunched over in my garden yanking weeds or grading papers on weekends, I think of that, and it doesn’t matter. I’m really happy to be one of those teachers,” Stathakis says.
During more than two decades at Santa Barbara High, he has expanded his horizons through travel. So far, he has visited more than 60 countries and all the continents except Antarctica. Southeast Asia and the South Pacific have become favorite regions. He spends more hours during a year traveling by airplane than by automobile.
As a teacher, he uses his travels to broaden students’ perspectives. Each semester, for example, students in his world literature classes read at least one African novel. A non reading assignment involves experiencing a foreign culture in some way, perhaps preparing foreign food.
Tranquility and Adventure
Stathakis-who has received awards for teaching-says the “stability, tranquility, and quality” of the educational system are very different from work as a travel guide.
“In Papua New Guinea,” he says, “you never know what’s going to go wrong. So many things can happen.”
One night, part of his group, searching for their hut in the rain, stumbled into a muddy ditch. Although the sodden trekkers scrambled out and eventually found their lodging, they learned later that the ditch was a war trench used by fierce Huli tribesman to protect their property.
Another time some of the group were stranded at dusk when the engine failed on their Karawari River boat. With the aid of friendly natives and a second launch, the stragglers eventually arrived at the lodge.
Part of the excitement of travel to such an exotic country is the feeling of being on a National Geographic expedition, Stathakis says. Because of the rugged terrain, Port Moresby, the capital, has no paved roads that link it with other major cities. Thus, much of the shipping and travel within the country is done by airplane. In some cities people watch TV beamed in by satellite, yet in remote valleys feuding tribesmen still fight with bows and arrows.
With so much adventure awaiting him, why does Stathakis return to the classroom each fall? “I could make as much money in travel as I do in teaching,” he reports, “but I prefer teaching. I feel so much more in control.”
So Mr. Stathakis will continue to guide Santa Barbara students through the intricacies of high school English, and once or twice a year New Guinea Greg will take travelers on tour. ” I always envy people who are seeing the country for the first time,” he says. ” I love to see adults with that youthful expectation and curiosity-not complaining that the ice isn’t cold enough-and fully taking in everything they see.”
Teacher is a Student of New Guinea
Public Citizen News
by Suzanne R. Whitmore
California Member Gives Tours of
Island Nation in the Summer
Greg Stathakis wears many hats. For most of the year, he is a devoted community activist, a dedicated teacher consumed with the daunting task of explaining the rudiments of the English language and the intricacies of world literature to adolescents at Santa Barbara High School in California.
But in the summer, he becomes a tour guide in Papua New Guinea. For more than 20 years, he has guided tourists through the rain forests and atop the mountains of the string of islands north of Australia, exposing travelers to an unfamiliar culture and country.
“I specialize in getting into the cultural mindset of the local people, who in some instances have gone from no wheel to airplane wheels in just one generation,” he said. Stathakis also has been an ardent supporter of Public Citizen for more than two decades. Inspiring his students, as well as other young people, is one reason he contributes to the organization, he said.
“I hope that this generation will be able to take over the role model of advocate,” he said. Stathakis hopes his philanthropy will spur young people to get involved in issues that affect society.
During his 30 years of teaching, he has observed three distinct changes in young people: students today do not enjoy reading as much as students before them, do not engage in enough critical thinking regarding mass culture, and feel a sense of hopelessness about injustices and apathy about changing them.
“I’d like to give to Public Citizen in the future, through my will, to help me feel more hopeful for the [next generation] of citizens,” Stathakis said.
A worldwide traveler who has visited 70 countries, Stathakis was a “disappointed consumer” on his first trip to Papua New Guinea in 1978.
He talked to a rival tour company about how tours ought to be run and was hired to be the U.S. representative for Trans Niugini Tours.
Today, he escorts one group each August to the equatorial country, where the natives speak more than 700 indigenous languages. The Papua New Guinea people are among the most friendly and unspoiled people on earth, he said.
His interest in diverse people and places carries over to his interest in Public Citizen. He supports Public Citizen because of the vast array of issues the organization addresses.
These affect the “whole spectrum of ethnic backgrounds, ages, financial status, rural versus urban dwellers and various educational and social backgrounds,” Stathakis said.
He admires Public Citizen because it is “appropriately aggressive without being strident,” he said. In particular, Stathakis appreciates the continuity of Public Citizen’s leadership.
“I have seen organizations in the throes of change with different directors and philosophies that result in a lack of continuity and focus,” Stathakis said. “I feel better contributing to an organization with experienced leadership and a strong record of success, commitment and continuity.”