Shooting ‘Survivor’ in Nicaragua

Self portrait after skinny dipping in a dirty lake on top of a Volcano in order to wash an itchy rash off my butt

The rash started spreading from my wrists to my arms, then the back of my hands swelled up. I was hiking through the Nicaraguan jungle – a cloud forest to be exact – and it was pouring rain.

The rain was warm, and it dripped from huge leaves in the dark canopy above. The path up the Maderas Volcano was flooding and we were hiking to the top.

“Don’t touch anything,” said our guide, describing several common poisonous bushes and trees. He gave the advice in the parking lot, which was nicely paved and next to a charming guest house. It seemed like an easy rule to follow.

We had started the hike in dry pasture, then inched up the foothills where fog creeped through banana and coffee plantations and the jungle became dense and full of monkey hoots. That’s when everything started getting wet.

The problem with poisonous plants in the jungle is that when you’re wet, their oils with spread through your clothing. I was wearing swim trunks and t-shirt.

Within an hour of exposure, I was itching my face, arms, legs, and rear. When nature called, I answered, and that meant the itch spread literally everywhere. What poisonous plant did I touch? I have no idea, but what I did about it remains very clear.

I broke from our small hiking party and began jogging to the top of the volcano. I knew there was a lake at the top, and I was determined to jump in. The guide begrudged me a few quick directions, but I was on my own for about an hour scrambling up loose, muddy washes until the crater rim came into foggy view.

View from the Vulcan Maderas, Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

View from the Vulcan Maderas, Ometepe Island, Nicaragua – Photo: Matt Standal

That’s when I realized I had to climb hand-over-hand down several hundred yards of massive, fallen logs and thorn bushes to reach the tiny lake that was peering through the mist.

What happened next was a tropical skinny dip I never wanted to have. The muddy lake was shallow and its bottom covered in sharp volcanic rock. Strange weeds poked out from the surface. A wild dog scampered in the rushes nearby, probably fed by visiting tourists.

I stripped naked while a group of French university girls watched in amusement. Then I swam to the middle of the lake and scrubbed myself with dirty fingernails while the fog swirled and the rain stopped and amazingly the sun came out.

For a summer packed with memorable experiences, this had to be one of the most surreal.

The view from our villa in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua – Photo: Matt Standal

The half-moon bay of San Juan Del Sur, my home for the summer of 2014 – Photo: Matt Standal

The daily fruit and vegetable market in San Juan Del Sur – Photo: Matt Standal

Just a few months before the volcano incident, I had been working in an office in the high desert city of Boise, Idaho.

My job was to serve as the lead online editor for a popular local TV station. I got to work at 6 a.m. and left at 3:30. I sat in a padded chair and typed headlines. I wrote breaking news and scolded reporters when their grammar and spelling was off.

I was 29-years old and my life was largely spent in the office and at the local gym. Each night I selected the appropriate container for the next day’s lunch. I had a collection of neckties bought on sale from the local shopping mall. My life was boring as hell.

That all changed when I boarded a United flight to Chicago and met the film crew from CBS Survivor.

It was early May, and a good friend had persuaded me to quit the news station with the promise of working in Central America. We’d be living in a tropical villa and working on a beach. There would be no more spellchecking stories about car crashes or house fires. I signed up for the job immediately. My focus would be on preparing TV camera gear for its journey into the field and back every day.

The film setting here was beautiful. Nicaragua’s landscape included jungle, dry forest, dramatic ocean cliffs, and rocky coves. There was also plenty of sand, saltwater, and mud to wreak havoc on my expensive equipment.

The equipment stash  I was in charge of setting up and maintaining in the beach jungle – Photo: Matt Standal

I followed this path through the jungle each day to our equipment stash – Photo: Matt Standal

Despite the harsh conditions, new adventures greeted me at every turn. Imagine being set loose in a foreign country with amazing tropical beaches. You get paid in cash weekly. There are dance parties every night in the local town. World class surfing is just down the road. A steady stream of young adventurers from Europe, Canada, Australia, and the USA filters through each week.

I surfed at least two days a week for four months. We visited the annual rodeo. I went deep sea fishing with the locals and ended up eating raw octopus. Once, after driving an hour, we ended up at military encampment where Nicaraguan soldiers were lounging around cleaning their AK-47 rifles. The soldiers greeted us with smiles. They were there to protect a beautiful beach used as nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles.

The stories could go on.

When someone asks me the best part of my job on Survivor, I always say it was being paid to work in a country with very few laws and no safety nets. The adventures here were real.

Holding a newly hatched sea turtle in the Nicaraguan beach preserve of La Flor – Photo: Chuck Petranek

A closeup of the tiny turtles being rescued and allowed to grow to maturity at the preserve – Photo: Matt Standal

My friends Vince and Dionne at our private surfing beach – Photo: Matt Standal