WRIT LARGE: Ch 16, Part 3
The Cure for Anything
Camp has already been set up when we arrive on Coral Island. I can tell by Olivia’s wide smile she’s happy to see we’re not staying in leaky one-person tents, but rather glamping on the beach in two-person tepees complete with single beds, strings of fairy lights, and space to move about.
“Wow! I hope you brought your camera,” she says. “I’ve changed my mind – I might stay here instead.”
Jeff introduces us to three more cast members who are staying at camp and joining us for tomorrow’s team-bonding activities. We shake hands with John Cochran, Parvati Shallow, and Boston Rob. “Call me Rob,” he says, “although I’ll answer to Boston.”
Everyone is friendly and welcoming, and no questions are asked regarding our presence here. Olivia is sharing a tent with Sandra, while I’ll be sharing with Jeff; there’s also a communal tent where we offload the cool box. Stacks of sandwiches are prepared with cold meats and hard cheeses, while soft drinks and bottles of still water are set out on the long table inside the tent overlooking the sea.
Conversation is easy and light-hearted, our companions chatting about vacations and family and baseball games. After our snorkelling experience and the boat journey between islands, I feel refreshed and scoured clean the way I always do when I am near the sea. It is as though the island, the camping trip, has encouraged us all to shed our hard shell of reality and simply be us.
The cast members all seem to have close relationships with Jeff, like an extended family. I’m curious to know if there are any competitors that he hasn’t bonded with over the years – any that have been unaffected by his open charm.
“So, what do you think?” Jeff asks.
I tell him that the discussion around the table reminds me of my Memoir Writing Retreat – an annual twelve day workshop with a select group of writers held in a remote cabin in Australia. It is aimed at removing them from the constraints of life and nurturing their creativity. Strip back schedules, and school-runs, and deadlines, and place the writer in a setting where they can rediscover nature, and they generally find that they discover a whole lot more that’s been buried deep inside. It’s always easier to focus on the ingredients required to make the family dinner than on a conversation from twenty years ago that altered the path of your life. It’s an extreme comparison, I say, but that’s the gist of it.
“These settings get into your blood like that,” says Sandra. “I don’t know if it’s the silence, or the beauty, but it sure is a culture shock returning home after a series.”
Jeff downs a can of Diet Coke. “I don’t think we realised when the first series aired, how much it would become a way of life for the cast members.”
“Was it always the intention to have players return?” Olivia asks.
“The producers had a few ideas under their hat before we started filming for the first time,” says Jeff. “One of them was to have winners’ reunions. But we kinda rolled with it and I guess even the players had no idea how the show would affect them.” He gestures to the cast members sitting around the table. “It’s the reason they’re here now; the reason they come back to mentor new players.”
I ask them how they deal with returning to their previous lives or whether the show altered their lives so drastically that they never quite picked up where they left off.
“I have a family,” says Sandra, “and a job. Sure, I’m lucky I get to make celebrity appearances, and I have the cushion of my prize money which regular people don’t have, but I mostly try to keep it real. I used to find the transition period between show and real life hard.”
Rob nods. “It’s a mindset that you have to almost program yourself to readjust to. Like, this is my home, and I am as happy here as I am sleeping beneath the stars. Once my mind accepts that Boston is where my heart is, even if little pieces of it are scattered around Survivor locations, I’m happy.”
“Like boxing up the show,” adds John. “It gets boxed up real pretty with a ribbon around it if that makes you feel better, and you slide the box into a compartment in your mind, until you go back again.”
“Wouldn’t work for me,” says Tony. “I wear my Survivor heart on my sleeve and dream about it at night.”
“I bet your wife is thrilled about that.” Parvati raises a bottle of water to toast him. “I think I’ve found a way to combine the two. Someone stops me for a selfie and I’m like, yeah, this is still me. I’m still a Survivor winner. Even when I’m running my yoga classes, I’m still thinking of game strategies.”
It’s interesting to hear the different coping mechanisms adopted by the players and I ask them if they had to reveal their worst moment spent on the show right now, could they do it?
They are all silent for several moments.
Before anyone speaks, I say that I wasn’t asking them to relive the experience, especially if it makes them feel uncomfortable, I was merely demonstrating what we try to achieve at the writing retreats. I want writers to dig deep, to explore events and emotions that they might otherwise keep locked away. I suggest that being here on this dazzling beach overlooking the ocean, with the prospect of spending the night in a tent – albeit a luxurious one – followed by tomorrow’s explorations, will invoke different emotions in each of us. For me, it brings back memories of university days and campfires on the beach with my wife.
“I remember hunting in rock pools for crabs with my dad,” says Olivia. “He never did quite understand that girls prefer pretty pink shells to creatures with pincers.”
Parvati has been listening intently. “Are you here to write about us?”
I inform her that I never switch off from people-watching and that if she notices me peering at her with a vague expression, it’s because I’m making mental notes from the conversations taking place, but no, I’m along for the ride at Jeff’s invitation.
“If I know Jeff, he has something up his sleeve,” says Tony.
“And if I know you, Tony,” says Jeff, “you’ve been reliving your childhood while we’ve been eating, working out the best place to start your own memoir.”
Tony spreads his hands. “You caught me out.”
“Does everyone have a story?” Parvati asks. “I mean, they say everyone has one good story in them, but I mean from life. Does everyone have a memoir in them?”
I tell her that I believe everyone does – finding the story is the difficult part as it isn’t always the one you might expect it to be.
“Am I allowed to ask?” says Olivia. “What did you all do with your winnings?”
Parvati is quick to respond. “I donated some money to a charity called Knockout for Girls. I used to be a boxer, so it means a lot to me.”
“She can throw a wicked punch,” says Rob, rubbing his arm.
“I’ve mostly invested,” says Tony. “I did it for my kids and I intend to keep that money safe for them.”
“And that’s the reason I love this show,” says Jeff. “When I see it change a person’s life, I think, I was a part of that and it’s truly humbling.”
I ask if that was the driver for them as contestants – the prize money.
“Not really,” says John. “I saw it as a challenge. You learn a lot of skills out there that come right back at you when you need them.”
“Most people like to push themselves,” says Tony. “Sure, the prize money is a bonus, and it gets under your skin because you’re looking at the person next to you and thinking, I need this money more than they do, but again that comes back down to proving yourself as a game player.”
“Not everyone takes the money and changes their lives for the better though,” says Jeff. “Richard Hatch. First season winner. He was jailed for tax evasion. Some folks can’t handle a momentous win like that.”
“You mean he didn’t pay the tax on his winnings?” asks Olivia. “Isn’t it tax-free? And if it isn’t, shouldn’t it be?”
“Oh, girl, I love you,” says Sandra. “Jeff, you need to get her on the next season.”
“You haven’t shared a tent with me yet,” says Olivia. “Or fought me for the last slice of toast at breakfast.”
“That’s exactly what I mean.” Sandra nods at Jeff. “Fighting talk, right there.”
“She already has my card,” says Jeff.
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It's interesting to think "what would be my story"...I definitely agree that we all have a story to share, but I can also see how it would be hard to choose which one.