Now, this isn’t your usual Inside Survivor content. As we wait out this extremely long off-season prolonged by the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought it might be interesting to find out more about the countries and islands which have hosted the show.
Perhaps due to Survivor being in Fiji for the last eight seasons, the engagement with local culture has taken a backseat. However, in seasons past, there were copious references to local traditions, landscapes, and languages. In this article, I hope to channel some quarantine-induced wanderlust and take a look into the culture of the countries that have hosted Survivor, starting with the Philippines.
The Philippines has hosted four seasons of the show, from Season 25 (Survivor: Philippines) through Season 28 (Survivor: Cagayan). The archipelago in Southeast Asia is made up of over 7,000 tropical islands, with the usual tourist hot spots of Boracay and Palawan’s white-sand beaches, as well as the bustling city centers of Cebu and Manila. The heritage sites harking back to the country’s Spanish colonial era are also popular go-tos for travellers.
In the lore of Survivor, the most conspicuous reference to the country’s local culture would be in the naming of starting tribes. On Survivor: Caramoan, the Fans and Favorites tribes were named “Bikal” and “Gota” after beach towns in the Caramoan municipality. On Survivor: Blood vs. Water, the tribes “Tadhana,” “Galang,” and “Kasama” mean “Destiny,” “Respect,” and “Companion,” respectively, in the local Tagalog language.
On Survivor: Philippines, three different animals are featured on the starting tribe buffs. The tribe led by returning player Jonathan Penner was named “Kalabaw” — or carabao in English — a water buffalo subspecies that is popularly regarded as the Philippines’ national animal (though not official in Philippine law). A symbol of industry and hard work, the tough animal is used for riding and agricultural farming, and its hide was used as armour during pre-colonial times.
Next, Matsing, the infamous tribe that dwindled down to just Malcolm Freberg and eventual winner Denise Stapley after a terrible losing streak, translates to “monkey.” While I’m not certain about this naming choice, a fun fact is that the tarsier monkey is native only to the Philippines. This tiny primate stands at only 8-16cm tall (or 3-6 inches, for you non-metric system folks) and lives on the Filipino islands of Bohol in particular.
The third starting tribe of Philippines is Tandang, which is Tagalog for “rooster.” Again, although I can’t be sure of this naming decision, a featured part of Filipino culture is its sabong cockfighting. Treated like an arena spectator sport, two game-roosters or gamecocks, sometimes with blades attached to their feet, are pitted against each other in a flurried match. Does this shed some new light on Abi-Maria and RC’s rivalry?
Cagayan‘s brawn and beauty tribes were named “Aparri” and “Solana,” both municipalities in the Cagayan valley region. Luzon, our favorite train-wreck brains tribe, is the Philippines’ largest island, home of the capital Manila and Quezon City. More interestingly for me is the art style of the tribe buffs and logo of the season. The decorative patterns remind me of the okir motif, a spiral-like leaf design prominently featured in Maranao art. Although, it must be said that similar-looking motifs are common across the entire Southeast Asian region — in Indonesian batik designs, for instance.
In any case, the Maranao people are the indigenous “people of the lake” who live in Southern Philippines. Their particular culture also seems to be the inspiration for the Tribal immunity idol of Philippines, which is a strikingly distinctive statue of a chicken. This could be referencing the sarimanok, a legendary bird in Filipino mythology, and a symbol of good fortune for the Maranao people.
On a lighter note, we also see moments of local culture as part of the show’s narrative itself. On one reward of Philippines, the players were treated to a breathtaking swim with whale sharks. I recall this scene as a nice little break for the challenge winners — Lisa, Malcolm, and Skupin — and for viewers to appreciate the Philippines’ natural oceanic landscape. Snorkeling and diving with these docile creatures is a top-rated attraction in places such as Oslob and Donsol Bay. A word of caution though, the soaring popularity of this activity has, unfortunately, compromised its sustainability. If you’re going to do this, research tours that are regulated by experts and seek out more natural experiences that respect the whale sharks’ migration routes!
Another attraction showcased on the show is the magnificent Callao Cave visited by Jefra, Spencer, Jeremiah, and Tasha after winning a reward challenge on Cagayan. Undoubtedly the most well-known tourist destination in Cagayan, this limestone cave has 7 giant chambers, and one of them has been converted into a chapel complete with pews and an altar. The Callao Cave is definitely worth a visit; it’s easy to navigate and has, in Spencer’s words, a scale that is “epic”!
A reward also took Denise, Malcolm, Penner, and Carter on a trip to a Filipino village, where they had a local feast and delivered toys to the children there. You might remember this segment for a short comical exchange where Penner introduced himself by saying, “In America, my name is normal,” to which the children chimed “normal,” misunderstanding his name to be… “normal.” Later on, Jonathan/Normal Penner plays a traditional Filipino party game called pukpok palayok or hampas palayok, which loosely translates to “hit the pot.” It’s basically like a pinata game, but instead of a paper mache, it’s a clay pot similarly filled with candy, chocolate coins, and sometimes money.
Before ending this dive into the cultural traditions of the Philippines, we have to talk about the local food culture. As a Southeast Asian myself, I do believe that street food, especially in the region, has a bad reputation in more Western-based international media. On Survivor, regional food items are often served as part of the “gross-food eating challenge” or as an undesirable trap item during Survivor auctions. However, most of the time, they are served in its rawest form and not how they are typically served as a dish or delicacy.
For instance, in the Caramoan auction, Brenda successfully bids for a covered item that turns out to be a pig brain. Tuslob buwa, which literally translates to “dip in bubbles,” is a Cebuano street food — pork liver and brain is cooked with soy sauce, garlic, and other spices, to produce a bubbling gravy. It really does taste better than it looks.
And of course, there’s another Filipino street food, the infamous balut, which has been featured on multiple seasons’ eating challenge. The balut is a fertilized chicken or duck egg, which is then boiled and eaten with salt or chili like a hard-boiled egg from the shell. Once you get past the visually shocking image of the developing beak and feathers and eat it how it’s usually served, it’s really not all that bad!
The Philippines certainly is a diverse country rich in its own unique culture. And thanks to seasons 25 to 28 of Survivor, we’ve received a peek at what it has to offer. At the time of writing, travel bans are still in place, but I know I’ll be back visiting the sun-soaked paradise once the COVID-19 pandemic is over!