|SO IN THE FIRST MOMENTS of April Fool’s Day I boarded a Malaysian Air 747 in Los Angeles, popped three Xanax tablets, and woke up half a day later in Taiwan, my new khaki shirt soaked with drool. Five hours later I got off another jet in Kota Kinabalu, or KK as the locals call it, a hard-driving berg of 112,000 souls crammed into blocks of boxy high-rises painted colors not found in nature or squalid collections of tin-roofed shacks built on stilts in polluted tidal basins. I stepped outside into air that felt like the inside of a sweat lodge. Within seconds my hair was the temperature of broiled wire.
My hotel, the Magellan Sutera Sabah, was a striking white-stucco complex with red-tile roofs sprawled on a sequestered landfill jutting into the South China Sea. Opulent and friendly at the same time, it was the ideal venue in which to conceal myself while I spied on media people and the CBS production teams rotating back and forth from Pulau Tiga, where filming had been going on for three weeks. I learned from my map that the island was two hours southwest by car and then a half-hour by boat.
On the way to my room I spotted an American with a ponytail lugging a duffel bag bearing the CBS logo. I introduced myself with my nom de guerre, Richard Kraneum, fearless book designer, and found out that he was an American journalist named Julian who’d worked for CBS at one time but was in Borneo to write an article for a weekly magazine about a show called Survivor.
“Survivor?” I mugged. “What’s that?”
The next day, I struggled to conceal my glee when Julian surrendered the name of a Survivor ejectee, which a CBS crewman with more mouth than brain had let slip that morning. Julian, of course, had been forced to sign the network’s insanely restrictive “Embargo Agreement” forbidding him from publishing anything about the fate of the contestants. I am not under any such restraint.
The loser’s name, as you may have learned by now if you’ve been tuning in, is Joel.
“Jeez,” I said. “Think they put Joel up at the hotel?”
Julian was watching a burly man with beard and sunburn make his way across the lobby. “That might be Joel right there.”
“Let’s follow him,” I suggested.
But beardo was moving as if on a mission, and we lost him. Julian headed off on errands just as a helicopter roared into view and landed on the jetty guarding the marina nearby. I hurried to investigate. A couple of louts disembarked into a waiting golf cart and zipped past me back toward the hotel. They were wearing T-shirts with the Survivor logo (outwit, outplay, outlast) on the front and the plea don’t vote me off on the back. Duh.
I caught up with them just as they were making their way into the lobby. They were laughing about Joel, wondering how he was filling his lonely days. As I eavesdropped on their gossip about another loser, Ramona, I also learned that they’d been assigned to pick up pizza from Ferdinand’s, the Italian restaurant in the hotel. The pizza was going to be airlifted back to the island via the chopper, possibly as a reward for the winner of some silly swimming or fishing or blowdart contest that Mark Burnett had cooked up to keep the players at each other’s throats. More important than the treats, the winners of these contests would be immune for one episode from the Walk of Shame. Or maybe the pizza was a morale-builder for the crew. Not that they needed it. They were feasting like swine on deli snacks and cold beer at the Survivor Bar, a trough built for them on the island.
I began to think that Mark Burnett was a lot like me, even though he was now my enemy. Well, yes, he was some sort of British expatriate raised in humble beginnings who claims to have been a British paratrooper, while I was a pinko raised in humble beginnings who had once made a modest career scorning my government from the pages of a leftist newspaper my cadre published called the Borrowed Times. Yet I believe that, like me, Burnett’s amusements as a boy included putting different sorts of insects into a jar to see which species would triumph. While Burnett originated the unfortunate Eco-Challenge notion and had his own production company, I spent five years organizing the Festival of Champions, an annual event staged in remote Missoula County, Montana, where players from all walks of life vied for lava lamps in contests like paintball wars and roadkill cook-offs. As far as I could tell the only thing he had over me was that in photos he looked OK in floppy hats, whereas I look like Ichabod Crane on mescaline.
The next morning, with a growing James Bondian savoir faire, I happened to step into the hall outside my room right behind a crew guy in a Survivor T-shirt.
“Don’t vote me off what?” I called in my hearty, American-touring-the-Orient voice.
He explained the Survivor concept and I nodded with enthusiasm as we walked to the lobby, where a crowd of production people and journalists was gathering for buses that were going to transport them to some fishing village where the boats to Pulau Tiga awaited.
“One guy totally freaked out,” my man volunteered when I asked him how the contestants were holding up.
“Wow,” I said. “Who was this guy?”
“Some guy named Bob. They shipped him back to the States.”
I wondered if this was the self-destructive player I’d heard about who had been banished from the island by a united female vote after declaring that the only thing stupider than a woman was a cow. The women mooed as he left.
A pair of white minibuses rolled up to the Magellan and the mob piled on board. As they pulled away I noticed an empty seat. This sucks, I thought. I have to get to Pulau Tiga, and pronto.