An old Mayan proverb states “Nya b’a’n tu’n t-xi t-xon tsmal twiy, t-xcy’aka, mo tstey, ku’n ka mina i jet aj tcyima, ocx cok’ila cyi’j.” That translates to “It is not good to throw away your hair, fingernails, or teeth because if you don’t find them upon your death, you will regret it,” and though it has no relevance to anything I’m going to talk about, it’s what I got when I Googled “Mayan proverb death,” so here we are.
Hey guys, Brian Corridan here, the seventh boot from one of Survivor’s famously tough seasons, Guatemala. Perhaps you recall Guatemala, the season so underrated it’s practically overrated? Coming off the dreamy idylls of Palau, producers were looking for something harsher, something grittier, something Survivor-er. What they got was a hot, humid, crocodile-infested jungle where anything at any given moment could and would kill you. Huzzah?
This week on Survivor’s 32nd season, conditions took one of the heaviest tolls ever on contestants as Debbie, Caleb, and Cydney all suffered heat exhaustion, with Caleb’s bout so serious that he was pulled from the game. It got me thinking back to some of the nasty conditions in Guatemala, and how little of that was shown, particularly in comparison to the horror fest that is this season, which might as well be subtitled “Kaoh Rong: That Time Everyone Almost Died.”
First, some background. Last week, I was knocked on my ass by the flu and spent a couple nights in sweaty, feverish madness. At one point, I was so worked up by a dream in which I couldn’t come up with words that had a d immediately following an s that I awoke in a near-panic. WAIT, I THINK THERE MIGHT BE NO WORDS THAT HAVE A D AFTER AN S. I NEED TO TELL SOMEONE. WHAT IS THE STATUS ON NOAH WEBSTER RIGHT NOW? Perhaps it was the NyQuil, but it seemed like a very big deal at the time. (Incidentally, misdemeanor, disdain, and Dresden, if you’re down for proper nouns, are among the many, many words with a d following an s.) An hour later, I struggled to fall back asleep because I couldn’t remember how humans slept. What do I do with my arms? Am I supposed to plug my hands into my feet? And what of the math? It was not a good night, you guys.
When I regained some semblance of lucidity, it occurred to me that this was the part of Survivor former contestants block from their minds. It’s awful out there when you’re feeling well. It’s pure unfiltered hell when you’re not. The other night, I was sleeping in a pool of my own flu sweats, sure, but at least that pool was collecting into sheets, a blanket, and a mattress. When you’re sick on Survivor, and you want to do all of the puking—all of it—your choices for comfort range from those clunky bamboo poles to that pile of mite-infested sand to that clump of dirt you’re pretty sure you saw a tarantula burrowing in this morning. Oh, and also, that jackass who was cast on the show precisely for being a jackass keeps suggesting you’ll be a liability in challenges while that well-intentioned but completely un-self-aware caretaker contestant won’t stop touching you and asking if you’re okay and you can’t help but feel this need to nurture is more about her than about you and also you need to puke right now.
I was fortunate enough to breeze through my Survivor experience doped up on enough adrenaline to make an elephant run across a tightrope. By and large, I was unaffected by the heat, hunger, and sleep deprivation, and I never felt under the weather. But I observed firsthand Jamie and Brianna down for the count around days 5 and 6. Having mistaken the chemical lime (which we were supposed to use to help break down our supply of hominy, I guess?) for salt (apparently “living like the Maya” meant no labels on our jars), Jamie and Brianna were pretty much out of commission for the entirety of Episode 2. None of this made it to air (possibly because neither was discussed as a boot option that week), but a good portion of our camp life was spent tending to our ailing tribemates. I really felt bad for them, probably. (It’s hard to say after all these years. Besides, in a game about constantly assessing your standing in a group, it’s easy to see another’s misfortune as a boon to your own game, because we’re all horrible people.) Anyway, no medical intervention was necessary, and they both recouped soon enough for Brianna to not know what a pick was in Episode 3.
Of course, what did make it to air was our intense 11-mile, 24-hour hike through the jungles of Guatemala to kick off our season. Putting aside the fact that the actual trek was significantly more than 11 miles (we got lost, like, a lot), the temperature was well over 100 degrees, there was no marked trail for much of the journey, all the mosquitoes told all their mosquito friends about these fat, fleshy blood-bags that had appeared from on high to feed upon, and villainous trees covered in comically large spikes made it their goal to impale us one-by-one. It was the producers’ way of letting us know that the show was no joke and that we were about to embark on a challenge that would push us physically in ways we had likely never been pushed before. Truth be told, the hike was intimidating but ultimately doable; most of us were still digesting the food we had eaten pre-game, so we were hale and hearty enough to take on the challenge without much stress. Even the now-famous scene of Bobby Jon’s eyes rolling back in his head was less about the conditions and more about drinking bad water, from what I’ve been told. (No one on Yaxhá had any such issue, #humblebrag.)
What you never got to see, though, was how bad things got during the Episode 3 basketball challenge. Unsurprisingly, intense physical competition and grueling heat make for a bad combination, as Mike Borassi and Russell Swan learned in Samoa. In our case, the challenge was lasting far longer than anyone had expected. Viewers at home were led to believe that the challenge was a “best of 5” situation, but in actuality (as is often the case for similar Survivor challenges), we filmed until one team had scored 10 points, allowing production to have their pick of what to show. Making matters worse, the rules of the game (no walking with the ball; you can try to steal the ball) made it easy to stalemate, with two opposing players tenaciously grabbing the ball until Jeff had to send it back to a jump ball. One particular round went to jump ball something like seven times.
More good times...
This all took place while running back and forth on a semi-taut raised net in a shadeless grove under the blazing sun. Jeff kept announcing the heat—110 degrees! Now 112! Now 114! It wasn’t helping. Hours had gone by since the challenge began when finally it became clear that something was wrong with Stephenie. She was visibly wobbly, and her competitive spirit was waning fast. She went down and medical came in to check her out. To no one’s surprise, she was dehydrated and overheated, having given her all in a round that had lasted over 45 minutes. Filming halted as water bottles and umbrellas were brought in and distributed to all players. We’re allowed to bring our canteens with us to the challenge, but when a challenge lasts longer than expected—and thus our water supply falls short—production intervenes. (They had done so in the previous episode, as well, during our mud tug-of-war, which also lasted hours longer than expected and was edited down drastically for television.) The break lasted a short while, giving everyone a chance to take refuge from the sun and to get some water back into our systems. It was brutal, and it was scary to see Stephenie, of all people, go down. I don’t know why it never aired—maybe Survivor didn’t want to tarnish Steph’s tough girl rep, maybe this was still an era when the showed feared appearing too punishing—but the fact is Survivor is a demanding, backbreaking, crazy experience and has been since Day 1.
So in closing, let me leave you with the words of our Mayan predecessors: “Nya b’a’n tu’n ttzaj tcy’aja aj t-xiy si’wil, ku’n b’e’x cjawil pac’chaje,” or “It is not good (for a pregnant lady) to put a comb in the folds of her skirt because her child’s teeth will end up crooked.” So true, Maya. So true.