New York native may have lost on 'Survivor," but he gained a new perspective on life
by FORREST VALDIVIEZ, The Island Packet
To fans of the reality TV show "Survivor," Robert DeCanio is known as the man who refused to play dirty and lost.
DeCanio made it 33 days into "Survivor: Marquesas" before he was voted off -- just six days short of winning the show's $1 million prize.
DeCanio lost out on the money, but he got something better in return.
"I got a jump-start to my life," says the 40-year-old New York native.
A self-described blue-collar-kind-of-guy, DeCanio has the voice of a construction worker speaking through a megaphone. He's got tattoos everywhere -- about eight or nine, he thinks -- and still room for more, if he wants.
For nearly two decades he worked as manager of customer service for the U.S. Postal Service. Then one day, he decided he'd had enough.
"I worked at the post office for 18 1/2 years," he said. "I would have had to be there another 18 1/2 (to retire). You do the math. Life's too short."
He drifted around for a while, becoming a part-time limousine driver in Queens.
Then along came "Survivor."
He signed up for the show on a dare. His best friend dared him to apply to be a contestant on the show. They looked it up on the Internet, and the process began.
About 75,000 people applied to be contestants on the show. Only 16 made it.
Filmed over the last two months of 2001, the contestants were split into two groups and left on a remote island in the Marquesas. They were given no food. Just a crate containing two machetes, a frying pan, two cooking pots, one filet knife, one magnifying glass, and a map to find water.
DeCanio's tribe, the Rotu (meaning "rain"), won its first six immunity challenges, winning the right not to have to vote off a member of their own tribe.
The other tribe, Maraamu (meaning "wind"), picked itself apart until the two tribes had to be united into a new tribe.
Rotu wasn't ready for the newcomers -- or the dog-eat-dog attitude they brought with them.
"We were winning all the time," DeCanio said. "There was no pressure."
The tribe's laid-back attitude "caught up to us a little late in the game. The other guys were playing the game since Day One."
If there were no tribal politics before the merger, there certainly were after.
On day 33, DeCanio was voted off the island.
"When I began, I thought there was no way I could lose this," DeCanio said. "I still can't figure out how I did."
On "Survivor" fan Web sites, DeCanio has been accused of not having the guts to play the game the way it's supposed to be played: by doing whatever it took to win, no matter what.
"But, why should I compromise my integrity or loyalty for a TV show?" DeCanio said.
DeCanio said that some winners, when interviewed, said "Survivor" was just a game and the maneuvering and backbiting was not indicative of the individuals' true natures.
"But you did it. You said it. That's a part of who you are," he said.
Still, DeCanio said, what audiences see on TV is not the whole story.
About 300 hours of film was shot during "Survivor: Marquesas." Each episode is only 44 minutes long, he said.
"The show has to make characters," he said. "What you see in Day One may have really happened on day five."
After filming ended, DeCanio went back to New York.
He had learned a lot about himself during his time on the island, foremost that he needed to make some changes in his life. He needed to become a more patient person. He needed to leave New York.
He moved to Los Angeles. He wasn't fond of the city, but it was a change of pace.
In his time in the Marquesas, DeCanio had developed an appetite for exotic places.
He has helped lead guided adventure tours into the Amazon in Ecuador, to the site of Tiwanaku in Bolivia and on the Inca Trail to the lost city of Machu Picchu in Peru.
DeCanio says he's still learning about life, but what he does know, he shares.
The best lesson he's learned? Do what you want.
"My dad has a saying," he said. "If you buy a car, get it with what you want. If you want it with a sunroof and power windows, get it right the first time. Be happy."
DeCanio's quest for happiness led him to Hilton Head Island. He bought a place in November, and on Christmas morning, left Los Angeles. He arrived on Dec. 27.
Now that he's here, he's not leaving.
"This is my slice of paradise, brother," he said.
DeCanio is taking tests to qualify to work for Outside Hilton Head, where he would lead kayak tours. He also has weekly spots with two local radio stations, 104.9 The Wave and 106.1 on Friday afternoons.
Still, if "Survivor" producers ever called, he'd leap at the chance to be on the show again because it's a great experience. And it would give him the chance to see more of the world.
And if they never call? Oh well.
He has mementos from his time on show. Props from the show's immunity challenges. They are encased in glass on his living room wall.
When cast members from the "Survivor" series see the props, they wonder how DeCanio got hold of them. They were instructed not to take them and told that their bags would be searched when they left. No one searched DeCanio's bags.
"If they had found them, I would have said 'OK,' " he said. DeCanio tapped his knuckles three times on his living room table.
"I haven't heard a knock on my door in three years," he said. "(They) gotta catch me first."