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Who Killed Dick Caldwell?

Dick CaldwellTo say that the reviews on Tripadvisor bothered Dick Caldwell would be an understatement. To Dick those reviews destroyed his business and ruined his life. It would not be too much of a stretch to say they killed him, though in all honesty they had plenty of help from Dick himself.

I never met Dick Caldwell in the flesh. We had the kind of friendship/ business relationship popular in the early days of the internet when the primary mode of communication was email because there was no Facebook, and instant messages were used only by people with AOL. My Greece Travel website was also in its infancy and somehow Dick or someone who had done his tours asked me what it would take to be featured in it. At the time I didn't have a criterion since most of the people on the site I knew personally or they were recommended by people I trusted. So I looked at his website which was like mine, poorly designed but content rich, amateurish, but with personality and lots of comments by people who had gone on Dick's tours and loved them.

One thing obvious from the reviews of Sporades Tours, which was the name of Dick's company, was that these were not your ordinary tours and were not for ordinary people. Dick was a professor at USC, an expert on the psychology of Greek Mythology, a respected author who translated Hesiod's Theogony and wrote The Origin of the Gods: A Psychoanalytic Study of Greek Theogonic Myth, books that many of us would love to be able to understand. He was also a lover of Greece and had the kind of intellect that would have made him quite comfortable if he could go back in time to be in the company of Socrates and Plato, arguing into the night and perhaps even drinking them under the table. In fact his tours were known not only for the archaeological sites they visited and Dick's commentary but also for long conversations at dinner, fueled by plenty of wine, that could go on til dawn. You could uncover the secrets of the universe with Dick and be too hungover to remember them the next morning.

As I wrote on my website as an introduction to Sporades Tours "These tours are not for everyone." I compared him to Indiana Jones and Peter O'Toole to prepare people that going on a journey with Dick was probably going to be a lot wilder than Rick Steves. Even wilder than Matt Barrett. But if you were the adventurous type who wanted to learn about Ancient Greece beyond the textbooks and guidebooks, could hold your liquor and were willing if not eager to spend the night discussing just about anything of importance with Dick and anyone else intelligent enough to be on his tours, then it was possible that this was a tour that might change your life, or at least be one you never forget.

One unique thing about Dick's tours was that you paid by the day and you could join or leave any time. So if you have already done Athens you could skip that and meet the group in Veria or Thessaloniki, and since the groups were small it was not a big deal for Dick to pick you up or drop you off at the port or bus station. The tours were flexible too. If you got to a site or museum that was closed for an unexplained reason, or because you spent too much time at breakfast arguing about Zeus and Hera's relationship or whether the ancient Greeks knew how to poach eggs, no problem because Dick knew another more impressive site nearby and though it is not officially open to the public there's this path around here somewhere that leads to that rock over there which overlooks an entire ancient city.

So if you are like me right now you are probably wishing you had done one of Dick's tours. But if you are a typical mid-western American, never miss church, vote Republican and enjoy a glass of wine on occasion, and did not read between the lines enough to know what you were getting in to, then a trip with Dick might be what you imagined hell to be like. In fact you could even be a Democrat, but if you believe in an orderly universe with everything in its place then you might feel completely out of place on Dick's tours. And if you are at the breakfast room by 7am eager to get the day started and Dick and the others start filtering in at 9, bleary eyed and unable to consume anything but coffee and aspirin you might start thinking that maybe this tour is not for me.

So what do you do? That depends on the type of person you are. If you are the understanding type then you might say to yourself that obviously I am not the kind of person who can battle Nazis while searching for the Ark of the Covenant, especially if my entire team and our leader are hungover or still drunk. You are paying by the day so you leave, take the bus back to Athens and maybe go to Santorini. If you are the rigid and fearful type and have no idea how to get to Athens and Santorini and too terrified of Dick to ask you may decide to stay with the group and either build resentment or succumb and eventually become one of 'them'. Or maybe there are others in the group who feel the way you do and you conspire to overthrow Dick and make the tour the way you want it to be. Or maybe you just pretend that all is normal, suffer in silence and when you get home complain on Tripadvisor so nobody else suffers the same fate.

Most people who knew Dick said he drank too much. They will also tell you that the more he drank, the more brilliant he became and was in fact one of the smartest and most learned people they had ever met. However age and alcohol in combination do take a toll on physical health and Dick was not a well man. In fact his life was a mess. His marriage had broken up. He was broke. His books were not exactly best sellers. All he had was his tours and they were not even breaking even.

"The Tripadvisor reviews are killing me" he told me. I did not realize he meant literally. There were only two or three complaints and from what I read they were valid. If I was a normal person and found myself on a tour where the guide has to take up a collection to pay the hotel bill or wakes up so late they miss a ferry I might be annoyed too. But what bothered me was the piling on by people who didn't know Dick Caldwell from Dick Nixon, who acted like cheerleaders for the complainers and then attacked anyone who posted a positive review or came to Dick's defense.  When Dick posted to defend himself he was ridiculed. When others posted about their experience they were accused of being Dick under cover. One woman blamed me and said this proves that you should not trust anything Matt Barrett says. (She brings groups to Greece. Isn't that surprising?) It was all very ugly and the only thing Dick could think to do was ask his satisfied customers to post and hope the weight of their reviews would counteract the bad reviews. But before he could do that Tripadvisor closed the thread and archived it. That meant everyone in the world could read it but you could not comment on it anymore. Whatever was there, was there forever.

Dick's tours were dying. He would leave Athens with two or three people because anyone who googled his name or Sporades Tours found the archived Tripadvisor reviews listed first and dismissed Dick as some kind of rip-off artist. He returned from his tours to Athens and he was broke. He picked up part time work here and there helping travel agencies with historical information for their tours, which kept him from starving, but he did not even have money to get back to California. The next thing I heard was that he had died. When I searched Google for his obituary there at the top of the page was the archived Tripadvisor reviews.

To say that Tripadvisor and the people who used it to complain about Dick's tours killed him is kind of unfair. To be sure there was bullying or intimidation going on, by people who had no valid reason to post anything, having never met Dick or taken his tours. But these things happen when there are people whose lives revolve around their own Tripadvisor posts. The people who were unhappy with their tour had a right to air their complaints. But those who defended the tours, including Dick himself did not deserve to be ridiculed, especially by people who had no business commenting at all. I think that if Tripadvisor had the manpower to monitor every thread they would have removed some of the more antagonistic comments, or kept the thread open to allow Dick supporters to voice their opinions. But in Dick's mind that archived thread killed his business and he begged Tripadvisor to remove it to no avail.

So that is pretty much the end of the story of Dick Caldwell and Sporades Tours. I regret not going on one of his tours or even meeting up one night in Athens for a night of retsina and a discussion about what Freud thought about Poseidon's bed wetting problem. But where Dick had failed to get the archived posts removed I was actually successful. Though the young lady I spoke to did not agree with me that Tripadvisor's policies were partly responsible for destroying the reputation of Dick Caldwell and Sporades Tours, she did agree to remove the archived posts since "it appears that Mr Caldwell is indeed deceased."

I guess you could call it closure.

Review of Sporades Tours by Matt Barrett from 2006

... I have gotten e-mails from people who have gone on them and come back feeling as if they had been kidnapped by Al Queda, wondering why I would promote someone as hard drinking, irresponsible and decadent as Dick Caldwell, calling me irresponsible for even having him on my website, sometimes demanding I remove him or face their wrath on Tripadvisor....

And then there are the fans of Mr Caldwell who call him brilliant and claim they learned more on his tours than they have on any tour in their lives.

So who to believe? Are Dick's tours a journey into hell or an unforgettable experience with drama, comedy, some terror and a lot of learning, not all of it academic?

I suppose if you are looking for a tour similar to those in 'My Life In Ruins' which are offered by all the travel agencies then carousing with Dick in Greece and Turkey, laying awake at night hoping that Dick and those still at the taverna you left 6 hours ago and can still hear laughing, will be in any shape to travel tomorrow, then you are best advised to avoid Dick Caldwell's tours. Personally I can think of a number of people I like very much who I would not send on a tour with Dick....

So I guess I am reneging on my promise to the tour participants whose journey with Dick left them on the verge of nervous breakdowns, to take him off my site. This is not an endorsement of Dick's tours. I have never been on one. But I understand that there are people who would enjoy and benefit from his wide-open pedal-to-the-metal style of tourism and I am probably more like them than those who would not enjoy it. (I bet I learned more in a 6 hour drinking session with an archaeologist than I did after 36 University classes in Greek Archaeology.)

It actually took a lot of soul-searching to put this page back up. I had taken it down because of the complaints that came directly to me and when I did I knew that I was probably condemning Dick to poverty in some small town in California for the rest of his life. I never read Tripadvisor but I decided to take a look at the complaints and see if there were people defending him. The complaints seemed to dominate though it also seemed like there were just a handful complaining, the same people who had written to me actually. Most of the other posts were from the people who spend their lives posting on Tripadvisor,who did not know anything about Dick, or his tours but felt compelled to chime in as they often do (some of these people have several thousand posts on Tripadvisor which to me suggests either psychological problems or a hidden agenda if they are not employees of TA hired to 'spice up' the 'threads').

This is what I had written on my site that someone posted on Tripadvisor as proof that Dick had my blessings:

Dick Caldwell is a legend. A renown professor of mythology at USC, translator of Hesiod's Theogony and an the world's #1 expert on the Psychology of Mythology, he has been leading his tours for the last several years. If you are expecting a purely academic and cerebral tour, well, let me put it this way: The Dick Caldwell legend has as much to do with his ability to drink some of the best minds under the table in the course of leading them through all night discussions as it has to do with anything he has written. We are too late for Socrates but we still have Dick. People who go on his tours come back changed.

Anyway this is the final word for me on Dick Caldwell's Tours. The guy is an old warhorse who knows more about Greece than any of the people who spend all their free time posting on Tripadvisor. He drinks.

More Reviews for Dick' Caldwell's Sporades Tours...

Dear Matt

For my mother's 80th, 7 yrs ago, my husband & I decided to send her off on a tour of Greece, which, as a French woman who'd majored in Classics & taught as a professor at Georgetown University, I knew she'd enjoy. But where to start? Googling travel agents quickly led me to the Dick Caldwell website - & - I swear - no bad reviews to be found & it seemed just the sort of unorthodox arrangement she might enjoy.

And so off she & my husband went on a tour of the Peloponnese w/ Dick, trusting totally in my reassurances that I'd hooked them up with the perfect tour group.

Which ended up being just the two of them & Dick, much to their surprise.  It was an interesting trip!  I was beside myself when I'd hear about their misadventures on periodic calls home - but they not only survived - but thrived!  That trip has been an endless source of rollicking good time stories since, & we've often wondered how "I don't care" Dick was doing.

We were very sorry to hear he'd passed.

If you know under what circumstances & feel comfortable sharing it, please let us know.

I enjoyed the piece you wrote about him. I'm glad someone cared, & plan to show it to my mum & husband.

I can be reached on my FB page under my name if you care to respond, but if not, I understand.

Thanks much again. ~ Barbara Buchanan (& Annick & Kirk)

Hi Matt,

Just came across your interesting article about Dick Caldwell. I was sort of hoping he was still alive. Sorry to hear he is not and some non-fun naysayers did him in on Tripadvisor. What a shame!

My husband and I went on one of his tours to Greece and Turkey and really loved it. I think it was about 1994. He was fun, intellectual, outgoing, knew everyone wherever we went, and above all very entertaining. He was very flexible, letting us start our tour in Skopelos, a very nice island. I wish he were still with us. He also referred us to Nefer tours (later Naggar) for Egypt where we went the following year.

We have now traveled to over 80 countries in the world, often travelling independently. Dick's tour was one of the very best and I think of him and our trip fondly. He actually got my husband to dance on the table with another shy person in Istanbul at the fish restaurants. Now that takes persuasion!

Best,
Caroline

Comment:

Just read your essay Who Killed Dick Caldwell? and was most interested. My wife and I went on a four week tour with Sporades Tours two weeks in Turkey and two in Greece. Like Dick I have three university degrees and knew in advance that his tours were unconventional and that he had a perspective on Greek Mythology to which he applied a Freudian psychology gloss. We very much enjoyed the four weeks with Dick. I never drank more than two beers in one day or one ouzo in one day with Dick. It was obvious that he was always just getting started, and I am not inclined toward inebriation. Dick chatted about mythology and the characters so much and so conversationally that when we would visit a site that had mythological significance, I had to remind myself Aeschylus is a god of medicine and Hippocrates was one of the first human physicians who admonished :first we must do no harm".

I was not around when he was "in his cups" but during those four weeks he provided only one psychology of the Gods lecture during mid-day. It was respectfully received and we went onward in the afternoon's explorations. Later I wrote for myself a critique of his views, mostly a critique for applying a late 19th century intellectual style to something nearly three thousand years earlier. It seemed to me that he misunderstood our using contemporary intellectual modalities to better understand ancient events, and mixed that up with applying a latter day intellectual modality to the ancient events themselves.

The tour was wonderful. Have taken several since with others but never experienced an eclectic personality who was so excitedly knowledgeable about the area and people.  

Thank you for your essay on Dick.

Enjoyable Dick Caldwell Tour

Dec 28, 2009, 4:39 PM

The short version of this posting is that I agree with BradUtah’s opinions about his experiences touring with Dick Caldwell. If you enjoy learning, appreciate camaraderie built on shared experiences, are relatively flexible by nature, and dislike traveling in ordinary tour groups, traveling on a Dick Caldwell led tour might be just the thing for you. It was the right thing for us! Details follow.

During May 2009, we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary with a trip that started with a 13 day tour in Greece that was led by Dick Caldwell. Acutely aware of the risk of getting our anniversary trip off to an unpleasant start, we subscribed to his tour in the full knowledge of the few critical comments that had been posted on TripAdvisor prior to our departure. There were a number of reasons for taking this decision, including our distaste for ordinary commercial tours.

As it turned out that decision was one which we continue to celebrate to this day. Our intensely positive response grew out of a number of aspects of Dick’s performance as a tour organizer and tour guide. First among these, his lifelong love for and deep knowledge of Greece's history, culture, people, and topography informed all of his selections of archeological, cultural, and scenic destinations. We benefited daily from his low keyed approach, guided by his impressively capacious memory, his refined esthetic sensibilities, and his powerful, trained intellect. These allowed him to distill his many years of experience leading tours in Greece into reliably wonderful moments at each stop and, indeed, even en route. Moreover, Dick’s many years of experience in Greece allowed him often to choose venues that were not on the circuits of large commercial tours.

Throughout, we appreciated the informality and flexibility of our tour, contrasting our freedom to explore at our own pace with the regimentation that we saw in other, larger tour groups on those occasions when we encountered them. Those other tour groups were in essence, herds whose members were obliged to respond to their guide’s shouted commands or shrill whistles and to follow the guide’s flag in order to stay with their particular herd. Seeing such groups in action, one expected to see border collies at work.

Dick took care to insure our physical comfort as we traveled the countryside. Accordingly, his professional driver was outstanding and the air conditioned, late model Mercedes bus (seating and luggage space for 24, dedicated to only 11 individuals) was elegant and quite comfortable. It included a refrigerator that was always stocked for us with the chilled bottles of water that were so welcome as we clambered over archeological sites in the brilliant sunlight and hot, dry air.

Concern for our comfort was also evident in his choice of hotels. Dick clearly sought to optimize on three dimensions: location, quality, and price. Hotel locations were almost always ideal: either immediately adjacent to our primary goal for the day or, alternatively, commanding the best view. Our hotels were generally nice and at the worst, a hotel would be adequate for Americans with European travel experience- simple, clean, quiet, and comfortable. They were generally in the middle to high end of the price range of hotels that most American travelers would find acceptable/desirable. In optimizing location, quality and price to make hotel choices, it was evident that Dick would assign different weightings to each, depending on situation at each stop and the reasons for spending the night in that particular town or village.

We and our travel companions especially appreciated exploring Greek food, wine, and culture under Dick’s guidance. Moreover, we enjoyed camaraderie with him over drinks and meals.

As others on TripAdvisor have noted, however, Dick did not sit at the table with us at every meal. He rarely joined us at our sumptuous breakfasts. In addition, depending on the dining circumstances, because he and his driver were both smokers (not in the bus), he would sit with the driver at a table nearby, after having first made sure that our needs were well served and that we had chosen the most delightful menu items that particular establishment had on offer. In addition, he was generally on first-name terms with the proprietor and this familiarity always resulted in excellent service and often yielded special off-menu treats for us at the dinner table. Even when he ate with the driver rather than our group, he would rejoin us to participate actively in our discussions and badinage.

On the road, the PA system on our bus allowed Dick to provide entertaining, informative lectures and stories related to the next destination on our tour. These were so engaging that even those of us who might otherwise have been most inclined to nap on the road remained awake and enthralled.

Many years ago, I had taken outstanding Greek Classics courses from famous professors whose gifts as scholars and lecturers were legend. I found that Dick had known them as colleagues. I realized that, in many respects, listening to Dick’s lectures on the bus and engaging him in discussions about them realized an old fantasy of having those distinguished professors from my undergraduate years at my disposal, informally teaching me on the actual sites and sharing with me the full, uncensored legends rather than the tamer versions that were permissible in the classrooms of that more buttoned down era.

After touring with Dick, my wife and I traveled independently to Santorini and Crete. There, as we explored the archeological sites, and hiked the countryside, the knowledge we so pleasantly acquired during Dick’s tour enriched our experiences on a daily basis. Even after leaving Greece, while we traveled in Italy, the insights and sensibilities formed while on tour with Dick continued to inform our experiences, thereby enhancing our pleasures.

Those extraordinary gifts from our travels with him were matched by the camaraderie that arose among our tour group’s members. Although from different backgrounds and countries of origin, the group quickly developed strong bonds of mutual affection and respect. These bonds powerfully magnified the shared pleasures of our travels together. In this connection, I believe that in addition to his many strengths as a leader of “tours for those who do not like tours”, some of Dick’s personal weaknesses, eccentricities, and infirmities, noted by others, may have been valuable and important, actually serving as a kind of catalyst for the creation of those bonds of friendship that so enriched our tour with him.

One imagines it is possible, however, that other groups of travelers, possessed by sensibilities and temperaments different from our own, might not share our group’s response to a tour with Dick. Those differences could conceivably interfere with their ability to enjoy their tour experiences as completely as we did.

I hope these impressions from our May 2009 tour with Dick Caldwell prove useful in helping you decide whether Dick is the tour guide for you. If you have never traveled with him, at least now you should know, a tour in Greece led by Dick Caldwell might reasonably be expected to yield a far greater value than earlier postings might have led you to imagine.

Whatever you decide, I hope your decision proves the correct one for you. My wife and I are absolutely certain that our decision to travel with Dick was the correct one for us. His tour provided all that we could have asked for and far more!

Walter Salinger

If you have any Dick Caldwell stories you would like to share please E-mail me.

See also Dick Caldwell's Greek Myths

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