Independent Muddy

Nick Carter led a group of FIU students on a trek into the Amazon rain forest. Now some of them say he's all wet.

Though O'Neill doesn't blame Carter for that bit of bad luck, both he and Hurwitz have raised questions about how their former professor spent the group's money. Their suspicions were first aroused at their campsite, when Hurwitz saw credit-card receipts indicating that Carter had paid only $218 apiece for the roundtrip plane tickets from Miami to Puerto Ayacucho. She and the other students had been under the impression that Carter spent substantially more.

"When I confronted Professor Carter about the discrepancy [on the way home], he got very angry and defensive," Hurwitz recalls. "I asked for my plane ticket back and he refused to give it to me. I couldn't believe it."

Carter insists that the cost of the tickets is irrelevant. "The point is, they agreed to pay a price for a trip and they got that trip. They have no idea how much things cost and what went on behind the scenes. They couldn't have done [the same trip] as cheaply on their own. If they had not gotten food or lodging or airfare, then yeah, I should be accountable for that. But they did."

A few days after returning, Hurwitz and O'Neill got together to try to tally how much money Carter had spent on the aborted trip -- and how much he owed them. By their estimate, Carter had between $1000 and $1500 left over. When O'Neill called Carter to demand that he return the surplus, however, Carter asserted that there was no money to return.

"They got a deal," Carter says adamantly. "And they are trying to tell me that I got rich off this. That's what's annoying. I didn't even get paid [by FIU] to go down there."

Hurwitz, who says she exhausted her savings to pay for the trip (additional supplies and vaccinations brought her total expenses to nearly $2000), recently sent a letter of complaint to FIU administrators. "I feel like we were misled and mistreated," Hurwitz explains. "The trip was nothing like how it was billed."

"I was disappointed," seconds O'Neill, adding that aside from the disorganization and discomfort, Carter failed to come through on his promise. "I expected we'd be living with real indigenous Indians, people who were close to the land. But the people I encountered had nicer haircuts than me. We never even got into old-growth rain forest. It was more like a camping trip to Maine, except that I was wet all the time."

Though she prefers not to involve herself in a dispute with Carter, Roxanne Robinson says the accounts of the trip supplied by O'Neill and Hurwitz are accurate.

The fourth student, Marlene Bombalier, says that despite all the snafus, she had a great time. "The scenery was beautiful and the people were wonderful. It was an amazing experience," says Bombalier. "Sure, things went wrong. But those were unforeseen circumstances, stuff that is typical in Latin American countries. I don't think it was fair to blame Nick." Bombalier says that based on the experience, she is even considering switching her major to environmental studies. Her companions, she contends, are "missing the point of the trip" by making allegations about their guide.

Carter admits that plans went awry, but in his opinion the students' own intolerance was the key problem. He claims, for instance, that despite the guardsmen's assessment of the permits, the military expelled them because villagers had lodged complaints about the Ugly Americans in their midst. "The military chief told me that the villagers had called the military asking to get rid of us because of particular people's attitudes and behavior," he says. "I told the students over and over about the rain and the bugs and the bad food before we left. But it became apparent when we were down there that they were not cut out for [the rain forest]."

As to the quarreling that went on, Carter says, "If people had been respectful toward me, I would have responded with respect. There was one student on the trip who treated me with respect and that person is very happy and satisfied," he adds, in reference to Marlene Bombalier.

The same cannot be said of FIU administrators. "The financial part of this trip is unusual and does raise some questions," comments Art Harriet, the Arts and Sciences dean who oversees environmental studies. "Because normally we would have to review and approve a budget for an independent-study trip, and in this case that didn't happen. In fact, it appears that Professor Carter was not even on the FIU faculty when he took this trip." Harriet says he plans to ask Carter for an accounting of the expedition's finances.

There is also the issue of whether the students will receive course credit for the trip; Carter had assured all four they would be able to get independent-study credit for the experience if they registered and paid for the credits under university guidelines. Only Patrick O'Neill registered for credit before they set off.

"It's hard to say what will happen in terms of credits," says Jack Parker, director of FIU's environmental-studies program. "Because the way independent study works at FIU is that an individual professor agrees to oversee a student's academic research. No one at FIU ever formally approved of anything about this trip. All the university saw, in this case, was that Patrick had registered for independent study with Carter. The problem now is that Carter is no longer a member of the faculty."

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