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Nick Carter, a visiting lecturer at Florida International University, extended an unusual invitation this past semester. "Spend the Summer in the Amazon," read the flyers he distributed to interested students, and they went on to describe a five-week expedition into the "most pristine rain forest left on the planet" with the opportunity to live among the indigenous culture and explore a habitat virtually untouched by modernity A all while earning course credit. "It is a trip you will never forget," the handouts promised.
Three of the four students who returned from the hinterlands of Venezuela on June 5 agree that Carter's adventure provided memories to last a lifetime -- but not the sort they had hoped for. Chief among their recollections: a flooded campsite, three days in military custody, and a bomb threat on the flight home. Two of the students now claim Carter owes them a partial refund, and one of them has sent a letter of complaint to FIU administrators.
"The whole trip was a disaster," says Susan Hurwitz, the most vocal member of the expedition. "It was terribly organized, and by the end I had totally lost faith in Professor Carter."
Carter insists the journey was doomed by the students' own preconceptions. "They expected to be able to experience the rain forest while living in a Ramada Inn," he says. He indignantly denies pocketing any of the $4800 he received, and argues that he was doing the students a favor by pressing ahead with the trip even after learning that he was not being invited back to teach at FIU next year.
The disappointment on all sides reflects the high hopes that once predominated. When Carter proposed the trip, the students in his introductory biology and environmental-studies classes were enthusiastic. A charismatic 29-year-old scholar who came to FIU from a Ph.D. program at Ohio State University, Carter later showed students photographs from his previous forays into the rain forest, and held a potluck dinner for those who showed interest.
He eventually selected four pupils: Patrick O'Neill, 36, and Susan Hurwitz, 26, environmental studies majors; Marlene Bombalier, 21, an education major; and Roxanne Robinson, 23, an alternate who was selected after two others decided not to go. Of the four, only Bombalier spoke Spanish, and only O'Neill could be considered an experienced camper. But Carter says he felt he had been careful to assemble a group that would be cooperative and cohesive. He collected $1200 from each student to cover airfare, food, lodging, and other expenses. He also explained that the students would be paying his way, in exchange for his services as planner and guide.
Despite a smooth beginning, the journey quickly hit a multitude of snags. Having flown into Puerto Ayacucho, a small city at the edge of the Amazon basin in southern Venezuela, the group was conveyed by a native guide up the meandering Orinoco River in a massive thatch-covered canoe called a curiara. Although Carter had hoped to settle amid a remote tribe of Ye'kwana Indians and lead day hikes from there into the dense, species-rich jungle, the group had to set up camp far short of their destination after their guide refused to take them farther upriver.
Pouring rains left the students perpetually wet and disheartened. Carter managed to lead a few expeditions in a small canoe, but most of the group's time was spent trying to collect firewood and keep dry. After a week, the river had risen 30 feet, and the group's campsite was a swamp. Hurwitz and Carter quarreled. Robinson got sick.
Though Carter suggested they relocate their camp to a drier site nearby, Hurwitz flagged down a passing curiara and the campers hitched a boat ride a short distance upriver to a small village, where they paid a nominal sum to stay in a large communal hut.
The upgrade in conditions did little to soothe the group's frayed nerves, but their stay in the village did not last long. Two days after the group arrived, a national guardsman turned up, demanding to see the permits Carter had hurriedly secured back in Puerto Ayacucho. Deeming the paperwork insufficient, the guardsman arranged to transport the party to a military post downriver, where they were held under armed guard for the next two and a half days.
"Everyone was saying how old and beatup their guns looked," recalls Patrick O'Neill. "But they didn't look old to me. To me, they looked used."
Initial coldness on the part of the soldiers gave way to friendliness, however, and the guardsmen even offered to help Carter get his permits in order so the group could return upriver. By this time, though, Hurwitz and Robinson were dead-set on returning to Miami. By the evening of Sunday, June 5, they were home, the five-week expedition having lasted barely three.
"As if we hadn't had enough problems already, on the flight back to Caracas they stopped the plane in the middle of the runway and we were forced to evacuate," says O'Neill. "Then they rushed us off in buses. We found out later that there had been a bomb threat. I was like, 'This is just perfect.'"