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Parvati Shallow is a Survivor champ and three-time competitor on the show. The OG Miss Survivor and Survivor Hall of Famer now covers health and wellness for CBS News in New York City. Find her on Twitter @parvatishallow.
Day 1: Arrival in San Juan del Sur
I’m so excited! CBS has hired me to host the preview special for Survivor: San Juan del Sur — Blood vs. Water. This will be my first time traveling to Nicaragua, and I’m not quite sure what to pack in my giant suitcase. So, naturally, I bring everything.
The problem with huge suitcases is that you feel the need to fill them. After snatching a few more last-minute packs of travel shampoo and waterproof mascara from Sephora, I rush to LAX to meet my crew. They’ve all been hanging here for an hour and are happy to see that I’ve made it with five minutes to spare before boarding.
We’ve got an overnight flight to Miami and then a short, two-hour trip to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. This may be the easiest Survivor location of all time to travel to; most locations take about two days of travel and include planes, buses, boats and vans. Once we arrive in Managua, our crew hops in a van and heads south to San Juan del Sur.
On our ride, I’m struck by how vastly undeveloped this country is. The landscape is plush with horses, chickens, oxen and people sitting shirtless in the shade. It’s my first time in Central America, and it is hot — like melted sunglasses on the dashboard hot — but I don’t mind. I love the feeling of being so removed from the city buzz of Los Angeles. And I’m eagerly anticipating meeting the new cast, playing in a challenge and talking with Jeff Probst about the new season.
While my team scouts locations at Ponderosa for our castaway interviews, I remain at the hotel; I’m not allowed to see the contestants yet. The producers are concerned my presence at camp may cause chaos.
And, that’s fine with me — I want to explore. Unlike the new cast, which is secluded and under strict instructions not to speak to one another, I have total freedom to go out and wander around town.
What to do with my precious free morning? The city is buzzing with full families squeezed onto the backs of mopeds, chickens squawking and trucks blaring loud music. I take a short stroll around the block and end up at Zen Yoga Nicaragua. I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. In the midst of the noisy city streets, the studio is a beautiful oasis of calm. I love this town already.
After a fantastic yoga class in the outdoor, treetop studio and a refreshing iced coffee made with blended dates and almonds, I begin comparing my present experience as a member of the press with that of my time as a Survivor contestant. If I were a contestant right now, I would be sitting on a log somewhere after listening to an impassioned speech delivered by executive producer Mark Burnett, sizing up my competition and writing in my journal about my feelings of anticipation, excitement and fear about this wild new adventure.
As a member of the press, I can fully enjoy my present experience, as well as have some compassion for what these contestants are about to endure. No matter how prepared they think they are, they have no idea what they’re getting into.
Later that evening, the rest of the press arrives. Sirius XM, NBC News, Entertainment Weekly, Us Weekly and TVGN (my old homies, which just rebranded as POP) join us for a large welcome dinner. I order a decadent mixed grilled seafood plate — baby octopus, fresh mahi mahi, lobster, shrimp and grilled corn on the cob. This new cast of players will surely outlast if they can take advantage of Nicaragua’s abundant ocean. The seafood here is amazing.
We are roused around 5 a.m. to meet the contestants at Ponderosa for the castaway interviews. I’m eager to meet the new cast. I remember the press days when I was a contestant; it was always exciting because I knew that when the press arrived, the start of the game was close at hand. It’s the waiting that kills you as a contestant.
We arrive at Ponderosa to find the castaways are all living in small pop-up tents. I wonder if they’re sharing tents as couples, since this season’s twist is Blood vs. Water.
They’re not. The couples aren’t even allowed to talk to each other, I discover. Every contestant must refrain from speaking to one another, and they are all being watched by contestant handlers. This crew is no joke.
After setting up in a large palapa with an ocean view, we get the teams two by two. I love interviewing the newbies. These are brave souls on the cusp of a life-changing adventure. I want to get to know them as deeply as possible in our brief 20-minute interviews. I find the new cast of couples inspiring, although some look like they are headed for trouble.
A few warmed my heart with their stories and love. A few made me cringe. Midway through the interviews, a storm rolls in — warning the happy contestants about what’s to come. They seem to take no notice, fully engaged in the excitement of the impending competition.
How do they feel about me being there, I wonder? Lots of sideways glances, huge grins and a few hugs make me feel welcomed. They know I’ve been through this before and have lived to tell my tale. I hope my presence gives them some comfort.
One of the handsome, single bachelors hits on me shamelessly. This guy is going to be a real handful on the island — maybe one of the stronger ladies can keep him in line.
We wrap interviews as the sun is setting and head back to the hotel, dirty, sweaty and starving.
Fortunately, in Nicaragua, there is fresh ceviche around every corner.
We return to Ponderosa early to get the group shot of the contestants. My director sends me into the middle of the group to tease the special. He wants an epic shot of me walking with the new players coming up behind me. I feel like a dork, but the group good-naturedly obliges.
I can sense the contestants’ anxiousness to begin the game. As a castaway, this is a really hard period of waiting. The pressure intensifies and minds begin to race. In an interview the day before, one of the new players voiced his deepest fear, “I just don’t want to be the first person voted off.” I bet that’s what everyone’s thinking right now.
Afternoon: It’s rad being a journalist! The Nicaraguan tourism board graciously hooks us up with an adrenaline-packed schedule of rappelling and zip-lining. On the rappel, I’m afraid we’re going to lose one of the journalists, who is terrified of heights. In a great twist of fate, Entertainment Weekly‘s Dalton Ross comes to her rescue and helps her overcome her fear. We all make it down the cliff without a scratch.
On to the ziplines. Good thing we all conquered the rappelling because, apparently, that’s the only way to reach the ziplines and get down the mountain. Eleven ziplines zigzag through the Nicaraguan jungle and back down to the base. I clip in and take off, flying over the tops of the tress, tilting my head to the sky. The freedom is sensational. Nicaragua doesn’t have any huge developments, and its pristine, natural beauty is breathtaking from this height.
The contestants’ anxiety was justified, because today the game is officially on. I am lucky enough to be standing just outside the ring of cameras and producers to catch all the action up close.
At this point, I can see all of the contestants and am amazed at one girl’s choice of footwear. Why would you ever wear platform wedges to play Survivor? I just don’t get it.
Jeff begins the conversation, and the castaways affably discuss their night zero together. Some of them claim to have started fire, while another team argues over who is responsible for their lost flint. This is funny. I’m enjoying my anonymity, hiding behind the crew.
After a few moments to split into tribes, a challenge is on. Husband and wife go at against each other — the first real test of blood vs. water. The loser is sent to exile along with a person selected by the winner from their own tribe. The drama and tears make for an excellent opening day.
As the contestants head to their tribe camps for the first time, I zip over to another exotic locale to interview host Jeff Probst.
I love getting Jeff’s take on the new players. The man has been hosting Survivor since its inception, and he’s still excited about it. We banter about our picks to win, who we think will falter, and the surprises this season will bring.
After wrapping things up with Jeff, we head over to base camp to get the scoop from Carlos about how the locals have been impacted by Survivor coming to town. Carlos is thrilled about working on the production; he’s supporting a large family on his Survivor income.
It’s nice to see that the local community is positively affected by the influx of jobs Survivor brings with it.
Today is huge. It’s press challenge rehearsal day. I know, it’s not like I have immunity on the line, but I do have a reputation to uphold. Dalton has been talking smack since the first day we met, so I’m looking forward to taking him on in the challenge.
When we arrive, I realize we’re in the same arena that the contestants started the game in the day before. We have to balance a tiny ball on a giant saucer as we maneuver our bodies through an obstacle course. This should be a cakewalk for me.
Dalton and I take our positions — ready for battle. The adrenaline pumps through my veins as Jeff says his old catchphrase, “Survivors, ready. Go!”
I’m having flashbacks to previous challenges I’ve played in … mud-wrestling, sandbag digging, standing on one toe for hours — torture chambers.
“You better pick it up, Shallow!” I hear Jeff’s all too familiar sideline commentary.
Snapping myself out of my reverie, I realize I’m losing! Oh no. Dalton will never let me live this one down. I get a handle on my ball and make it through the course, seconds behind Ross. Crap.
Thankfully, it’s not over. There’s another leg to the challenge. I tag in my team of ski-ballers, and they pull out a victory in the end.
Whew, crisis averted.
After a few celebratory fist-bumps, Jeff asks if Dalton and I can assist as the producers make changes to the challenge to ensure its fairness and difficulty. This is cool. We rerun the beginning of the challenge a few more times while the crew repositions some of the obstacles. Challenge producer John Kirhoffer and Probst toss questions out to each other: “What if it’s a tall person versus a short person? Do we need to move the end post to account for someone with longer arms?”
This is one of the most exciting aspects of making Survivor. It all happens in the moment.
The contestants are constructing their shelters on a nearby beach, completely unaware that the production crew is concurrently building their very next challenge.
This is it. Our final early morning call time. The press all caravan to challenge beach together, ready to watch the first tribe on tribe competition. This challenge is MASSIVE.
Now, I’m feeling the Survivor siren call — I want to get in on this challenge. There is a maze on the ground and the structure is three levels high. It’s certainly the grandest challenge I’ve ever seen. Kirhoffer and the crew have truly outdone themselves.
Everyone is buzzing. Cameras are positioned everywhere, on the ground, at the center and on top of the structure so as not to miss an angle.
“Come on in, guys,” Jeff calls in the troops.
The competition is heated. One contestant shocks me with his athletic prowess, lunging through the maze like a leopard. After the show is over, the press run over to the structure to test our mettle. I can’t get the rope remotely near the target. The contestants made it look so easy!
After a long break, we make our way through the dark, bumping along the dirt roads to watch tribal council. When we arrive at our destination, I see we are set up in a jungle living room. There is small shack with refreshments, a few rows of folding chairs and a TV plugged into some source of power.
I feel like a ghost who walked through a wall to another dimension. This is not my reality. As I watch the live feed of tribal council from our dry, cozy jungle shack, I smile to myself. What a privilege to be a part of the other side, to see how they make this incredible show.
Tribal council lasts two hours. Finally, the first person is voted out.
We walk the dark, wooded path to check out the tribal council set. It’s eerie being here right after someone’s torch got snuffed. If I were playing, I would be walking back to my tribe beach right now, heaving a sigh of relief and thanking my lucky stars to still be in the game.
But, this is not my game anymore. As I talk with Jeff about his top five tribal council blindsides, I become aware of a sensation of lightness in my heart. I’m happy to be here sitting on this stump in the jungle. I’m happy Survivor found me and became such a huge part of my life. This game helped grow me up; I’m grateful for the experiences, and the lessons it taught me. And I’m even more thankful to be on the other side of it all now.
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