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.'"
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."
For this reason, it's unlikely the three students who did not register in advance will be awarded any credits. "Obviously I'll try to make sure that we work something out with Patrick," notes Parker.
That would be nice, O'Neill responds, especially given the comment Carter made while the two were whiling away the hours of detention at the national guard post. "I was concerned, because of everything going wrong, about whether I had fulfilled my credits," he recalls. "So I asked Nick, and he said, 'Don't worry about it. After everything we've been through, you'll all get A's.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.