Dalton Ross
September 22, 2006 AT 04:00 AM EDT

They are the four words no Survivor player ever wants to hear: ”The tribe has spoken.” And for Sekou Bunch, they came far too soon — just three days — after he began competing for a $1 million prize on this season’s Cook Islands installment of the CBS reality series (Thursdays at 8 p.m.). But his experience didn’t start in the South Pacific, and it didn’t end when his torch was snuffed. In fact, for all 20 contestants, the game began when they were told that they’d been selected for the show on May 26, 2006 — and continued through a series of sequestered hotels, marathon flights, Survivor trainee school, and a pregame pep talk that included the revelation of this season’s race-related twist. EW secured never-before-granted access to all the contestants, tagged along as they prepared to play the game, and joined the first ousted player as he left Tribal Council for PSL (post-Survivor life).

The contestants arrive in L.A.

The crew of the Battlestar Galactica is checking into a Radisson near Los Angeles International airport. At least, that’s what the hotel’s reservation log would have you believe. Each season, in a nifty bit of subterfuge, Survivor contestants are given the names of characters from a popular TV show to protect their identities. Sekou, a 45-year-old professional jazz musician based in L.A., steps out of a taxi at 3 p.m. and is immediately greeted by contestant manager Lauren Brock, who confines him to his room with a $100 per diem. He’s instructed to sit and wait. There will be a lot of that.

Checking in at the airport

At 5 p.m., Sekou’s cell phone is confiscated, and all contact with his loved ones severed. Three hours later, players are loaded into vans headed for LAX. Everyone is strictly forbidden from communicating with each other. That means lots of me time with iPods and painfully awkward avoidance of eye contact. It’s pretty boring…up until the security check-in.

What should be a routine X-raying of carry-on items turns into anything but when Sekou’s bag is held up by security. Confused, he turns to a female screener and asks, ”What are you looking for?” ”We’re just trying to find something,” she responds. ”Can you tell me what?” he inquires. Her answer: ”A knife.” A steak knife is found under a flap. The police are called over, and Sekou fears that his game may have ended before he even leaves the country. After insisting he has no idea how the knife got there — his best guess is that he threw it in while moving and forgot about it — and surrendering the blade, Sekou waits nervously as the police take a report. Eventually, he is allowed to board the plane. Disaster averted…for now.

A marathon commute, a temporary home, and…bugs

It’s a nine-hour flight to Papeete, Tahiti, and another three hours to the island of Rarotonga. Several contestants see the trip as a perfect opportunity to mix and match sleep aids, but back in row 31, Sekou reads his Bible. Upon landing, contestants are split into two groups, which they will stay in until the game begins. They board puddle jumpers to Aitutaki, an island in the South Pacific approximately 2,000 miles northeast of New Zealand, which serves as base camp for the Survivor crew. But not the cast: After van and boat rides, the contestants finally reach the tiny island of Akaiami (population: Count on your right hand). For group 1 — Sekou, Parvati, Cecilia, Ozzy, Billy, Jonathan, Candice, Yul, Becky, Sundra, and Rebecca — their home-way-away-from-home for the next few days will be the Akaiami Lodge, a large hut with fans, cots, and a porch. The good news: It’s right on the beach. The bad news: Contestants can’t enter the water lest they form pregame alliances out of handlers’ range. So the beautiful blue lagoon just sits there, mocking them.

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