compare two experiences

Part I

naked_afraidYou may have seen a series of reality shows on TV recently about two survivalists set down in hostile territory sans clothes, food, matches, water or shelter, and required to survive for 21 days. Each week a man and woman who had never previously met, removed their clothes and shook hands in a jungle, or on a beach, the Serengeti, a desert island, or wherever that episode was filmed by an unseen two-man crew. The fact that in the course of the episode participants each lost about 20 lbs. in weight and were seen eating maggots, insects, snakes and any small animal they could catch, testifies that the camera crew did not share their sandwiches.

To spare their blushes and ours their intimate parts were fuzzed on the film. It was not at all erotic. I winced as they walked barefoot in the desert, knowing the thorns that lie in wait. I sipped gratefully on a glass of iced water as they drank out of puddles. The sun was powerful, its rays badly burning one fair skinned contestant (a former marine) on a desert island.

What gripped my interest were the dynamics between the contestants as much as their deprivation. They were assessed before and after for their survival skills. The marine was initially dismissive of the woman’s competence. She was slender, smart and quietly resourceful. He was bigger, stronger and patronizing. Presumably macho outdoor men are easier to find (two a penny) than experienced survivalist women with the guts to bare all on camera, enduring deprivations and dangers, so the quality of the females was remarkable. The man lay prone under a bush on the beach for the first three days, groaning from the blisters. His partner wove a sunhat and shoulder cape for herself from reeds. She also wove a mat to protect him and went in search all day of food. Eventually she climbed a palm tree in her bare knees and returned with three coconuts. “Is that all you could find?” he whined. In mitigation I would say that his agony was genuine and that eventually he admitted her huge contribution to their survival.

Another couple was so desperate for water (the most vital resource) that when they found a stream after two days without it, he drank gratefully from the flow, but she suppressed her thirst while rubbing sticks to build a fire and boil the water first. He nearly died of an infection from the water, while she looked after him. The same woman wrestled a small turtle in a crocodile infested river and brought it back in triumph to make soup, while he complained about the menu.

I had concern and respect for all contestants as they struggled to survive, wild animals roaming nearby as they tried to sleep in a tree. In another scenario a woman pursued a poisonous snake with an axe through the shallows of a swamp, on which they feasted that night, their first protein in days. Each was allowed one tool of their choice, a hammer, knife or saw being popular. I think my tool of choice would have been a barbecue.

One of their biggest frustrations was the absence of matches. They sought to make fire, rubbing sticks with varying levels of despair and expertise. Each time the fire went out (if it rained or the fire died while they slept) they had to start the exhausting routine again to kindle a new glow and produce a flame to cook dinner. While it rained incessantly for days at one stage, they tried to keep the hearth alight under the shelter they had built from branches and reeds, but it caught fire and their shelter was consumed, the fire extinguished by the rain.

You may consider reality TV beneath your dignity, but if you dub it Social Psychology or Anthropology you might overcome your scruples and allow yourself to watch this riveting series.


Part II

Cabeza de Vaca portraitI recently came across a paperback (The Marvelous Adventure of Cabeza de Vaca, by Haniel Long, published in 1972) describing the fate of four members of a failed expedition by Spanish Conquistadores washed ashore on the Gulf of Mexico in Florida in 1528. Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, a lieutenant aged 38, led two other Spaniards and a Moor, naked and afraid, across the continent in a journey that lasted eight years. His letters to the King of Spain record his adventures.

In 1492 Columbus, landing in Bermuda, had reported to the King that “The inhabitants are poor in everything, gentle people, ignorant of arms and easy to subjugate and carry to Castile or make captive in their own lands.” The people in the new world would make good servants and easy converts, he advised. Colonization was not the intention of the conquistadores. Their objective was commerce (gold, slaves and spices) and opportunities for the Catholic Church to convert heathens. The Philippines were so called for the Spanish Prince Philip, later King.

Cabeza de Vaca’s original expedition comprised 580 foot soldiers marching in full armor, led by Spanish gentlemen on horseback. Their number dwindled to 40, from skirmishes and disease as they suffered hardship, hunger and thirst until those gentlemen gnawed on corpses. They built open boats, intending to cross to Cuba. They put their clothes in the boats prior to launching them. The boats sank. The survivors were washed ashore where they were kindly fed by Indians, themselves impoverished, who found them weeping on the beach. The Indians (so called by the explorers because they thought they would find India) sat and wept with them.

The Indians took the four to their village, lighting fires to warm them on the way, lying beside them wrapped in hides against the bitter cold. Cabeza de Vaca would later write to the King of Spain, “To understand what it means to have nothing, one must have nothing.”

Expedition_Cabeza_de_VacaNews came that five Spaniards from another barge, stranded further down the coast, had eaten each other until only one survived. The Indians were startled and as a result, made the four their beasts of burden. Their shoulders sore with fissures, it hurt to carry the hides they slept in, starving, baked by the sun, unkempt and shriveled.

Spanish invaders had burned the villages and taken men, women and children captives. The Indians fled from the slave catchers, abandoning fertile lands and full streams. The four survivors moved on and wandered, often without eating for days; Indians in varying states of poverty fed the four strangers.

In this wilderness Cabeza de Vaca eventually became a trader inland with seashells and cockles for tools, trading hides and red ochre, flint for arrow tips and tassels of deer hide.

What started as a European adventure to exploit the natives led Cabeza de Vaca to the conclusion that the Indians were his brothers and sisters. In the absence of medicine, he prayed over the sick and the Indians believed he had the power to heal them. They credited him with many miracles.  Lost in a thorny land without resources, facing constant danger and deprivation, he developed compassion for his fellowman through his inward journey of discovery. After eight years he reconnected with Europeans. His account of this experience, written to the King, resonates to this day.

Images - the feature image is a promotional image from the show; the drawing of Cabeza de Vaca is public domain; the map is used under a creative commons license via and was modified for English by
Eileen Dight

Eileen Dight

Eileen Dight is a retired British specialist on trading in Spain, now resident in Ireland. Spanish- and French- speaking, graduate (at 46) of International Politics and History; former editor, interpreter and fundraiser. Her five sons and twelve grandchildren live in four different Time zones around the world. She has lived in England, Wales, Spain, France and Virginia, North America for 11 years. In 2012 she self-published her memoir Plate Spinner and Only Joking, 200 pages of collected jokes categorized for easy reference, as well as What’s On My Mind, her first 50 essays published in Like The Dew. All available on