An Overview of Adventures in Geocaching
I never loved the color green - nor considered the range of her varieties - so much as after the forest, which swallowed me whole in my isolation and surrounded me with colors I had not, in all my years of paint-stained hands, known before. What brought the different shades to fruition was sunlight. When it managed to break through so many layers of shadowed leaf, it was tangible in its vibrancy, an unmistakable glow of stained glass. Even well before that canopy, few things enchanted me so much as a light you can feel. Hanging laundry in my tiny one-room student housing, the whole outward wall like a window and the warmth of the sun on my bare shoulders, reminding me just how much can change with the accumulation of two beloved scars and some tattoos across one’s chest.
Academics, historically, mixed poorly with my queerness. Professors refused to allow space for the possibility of anyone transgender, with no understanding of the fact that they had no say in the matter, and their denials did little to erode my person but very successfully instilled in me a fear of repercussions slipping into my grades, references, and future. I’ve since spoken to others, who went to better schools with more qualified teachers, and am glad to know that this isn’t always the case. But when someone deducts points for your thesis because of the color pink, it really sticks with you that perhaps you’d do better in school if you hadn’t had to transition in front of professors and peers.
So, when I switched schools over a year after top surgery and about 5 months after starting T, I decided that if I did somehow pass, I would stay stealth this time, and hopefully graduate with at least one reference. This was not without its complications, the first being the queer guilt I felt at no longer taking space as one of many involuntary ambassadors for my people, confronted with unprompted lines of questioning from the well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) ignorant, while also more readily speaking up with experience to call out transphobia and forcing the world to somewhat improve around the silhouette of my existence in their curriculum.
Sometimes you’re able to make things a little better, other times someone decides that since they don’t like you personally they are going to make it the problem of every transgender person they meet, so with ambassadorship comes constant vigilance towards impossible perfection. And yet from the closet, others hardly listen to your calls to improve society in even the slightest way, they just ask why you care so damn much in a way that makes your blood run cold. I became accustomed to explaining to classmates why I felt the need to use my “cis privilege” to speak up on behalf of the trans community, though I re-iterated always that I was far from an expert. After classes, I would take trains through the city to meet with queer people, and laugh at the charade of it all, clinging onto my queerness and the warmth of trans culture with white knuckles.
The other complications were mainly just outdated attendance sheets, which plagued me any time I even started to let my guard down. The first day of one of my courses, a professor decided to put every student’s name and designated sex up on the projector, and for the longest time I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d managed to get him to turn it off before anyone had a chance to wonder who the outdated and unrepresented name belonged to. The second attendance sheet was being passed around. The class it was for had only about 10 students, and this was well into the course. I’m not sure how the mix up happened, but in my panic I went the sitcom route of an unnecessarily elaborate plan, passing around a blank paper for attendance and sneaking out of the room to baptize the typed-up page in ink back at my student housing, sacrificing a leaky pen for the ruse. When the professor expressed confusion at the switch from the typed record to a written one, I simply held up the ruined page and my inky hands as evidence of a pen exploded. Not an unexpected situation, given the art courses I was known to rush from. I could have just lied about the ink spill without actually staging it, but you know. Panic is not known for inspiring the calmer, collected route.
I am not writing this to discuss my hatred of attendance sheets, nor my many near misses throughout the years of keeping close to my chest my identity in classes, and then hurrying to weekly or monthly meetings of local queer groups to breathe again. I am writing this to focus on a different complication with being stealth, which was my decision to risk it by spending a semester abroad in a tropical forest, a place that was described to me as having no privacy and very little connection to the world outside.
I was warned of spiders, and snakes, and jaguars (what luck it would be to see one of those). I asked questions only about toilets, and housing, and showers. A spider in the toilet won’t out me, the lack of a door will. While there would be no walls or doors in any other locations, the showers and toilet would have enough to give me a fighting chance at staying stealth. Besides, I did not want to miss out on such an opportunity, I am a person who has been waiting to run into the woods all my life. So, I promised myself I would just do my best. The place was safe enough, whereas I felt my life would not be in danger if outed - only my grades and chances of referrals post-graduation.
There have been so, so many other opportunities, in different places and with different groups, which I have deleted applications to for more serious concerns of my legality and safety where the work may take me. It will not always be like this, I tell myself today and again tomorrow.
And so, at the start of the fall semester, I was in an airport. Shoving a piece of paper over the labels on one side of my boxes of T, holding the other to my chest until my peers were in different spots of the airport security line and I could nervously let them go through the checkpoint, only to hastily pack them up again. It would take a few days and two hotels to get to our new hammock and tree campus. Until then, I was sharing a hotel room with a colleague whom I’d only seen once before, across a crowded table. I wondered for a moment, as my roommate sprawled out over his bed without his shirt and I gathered all of my clothes to take with me to the bathroom, who had done this before me, and if this is what it was to be alone.
A few weeks later, we threw ourselves into our work, all having figured out the projects we would be doing with the rest of the semester in an area of forest populated only by, at the very most, a couple dozen people. I saw mist nets for the first time, and helped write down the names of birds I’d never seen before. I walked through a spider web, and then did it again with a different one, and then started to memorize where they were on trails that didn’t exist except for in the abstract linking one large decaying leaf to another, recognizing branches and logs and shapes that only just passed for mushrooms. I worked with my hotel roommate and our hammocks hung beside each other. Though no walls were around us, it felt as if we were roommates still. I always made sure I woke up before him and the others, so I could bring my clothes into the bathroom and dress there unnoticed. In the afternoon, we lay on the ground to watch lizards crawl around us.
I was still afraid of the spiders, you know, but far more afraid of the bathroom’s impending death. It was a rugged, “plumbing light” toilet that had become overused, and we were warned to avoid it when possible. Easy enough, they said, to stand by the side of it and piss off the path.
My panic mounted during a safety training demonstration, strapped inside a harness that seemed to highlight specifically a part of the body I was expected to have but did not. It seemed obvious to me, and I was half expecting everyone to know in a moment. I taught myself how to make a packer out of socks. However, the trans experience does not play out the same for each person, and I say this while supporting with my whole heart all and any gender affirming procedures or devices a person may need. Under the dappled lights of forest greens and between the calls of birds whose names I was learning through a filter of languages, I learned to understand that one of my favorite parts of being a trans man was having my body - now post top surgery and thriving off of T - exactly as I then wished it, a state that included being without that particular appendage. The pressure to adjust myself in ways I didn’t want in order only to appear more cis granted me a new flavor of dysphoria. In response, I unrolled the socks and learned how to move quickly enough to position myself at either the start or the end of the group. Good-bye sock packer.
I had been warned, as well, about the isolation in this area. If you are a student in a city one minute and the next you are stuck with the select few members of a long-term field trip, you end up on a hellish seesaw shifting from wanting to be alone to feeling impossibly isolated. One person in particular encouraged me to talk to her about anything, as she had done all this before, and would understand anything I brought up. It almost made it more infuriating, each time she asked me if I felt isolated or how I was doing or if there was something I wanted to talk about.
I was suffocatingly isolated! I was alone. I already knew I was the only trans person in my graduating year, and so far, as far as I was made aware by admissions, the first known trans person in my program. But outside of classes, I could find community in the city. Here, not only was I the only one, but I was constantly reminded of it, particularly in the efforts required to remain stealth. During the first few weeks, I locked myself in the rotting toilet - which was still a sanctuary - every Saturday to inject myself with testosterone. I felt most isolated in not knowing a single person who had done this. Every story I knew of a trans person who lived stealth came from them being outed, either during or after their lives. None of the stories I had ever heard matched with what I was experiencing. I felt a desperate need for trans history and community, to know one other person who had done what I was trying to do and succeeded, but those who succeeded weren’t outed and known. Besides, even if they had been known, I had no internet here to search for someone. I promised myself regularly that I was not the first and would not be the last. And yet, with all of that on my shoulders, this place was a miracle to me. I was completely enchanted with the sounds of the forest, its deep canopy, many colored insects, and golden-furred monkeys with their voices that could be held in the tree-trunks. The desire to share this with someone coupled poorly with the exhausting necessity to perform during all moments aside from those in which I was, but for the dirt and its companions, alone.
There were moments that felt like the world was unfolding a story for me, giving me the space to make up for lost time, in the least likely location. My peers asked me questions about American culture, inventing fraternities and sororities among themselves. What’s an American high school like? Do you really need to ask your dates to prom in a clever way? Why don’t we do that here - and we did. I was in a fraternity of three. We put together corsages for a party that never actually happened, but we took the photos, and that’s all it’s about anyways. The photos from my actual high school prom I can’t show anyone, and it’s a different kind of experience to look at them. I didn’t think a forest would be the place to give that all back, especially one in which I often felt my safety relied on the careful construction of a cisgender image, which could fall apart like a house of cards if I ever slipped up in my act. I couldn’t breathe - but when I did, the air was filled with the sweet perfume of plants and decaying earth.
I wasn’t the only queer person there, at least one colleague had said enough for me to know she wasn’t straight. And later, when feeling isolated and scared and realizing that soon the toilets would be out and I didn’t want to be in this alone, I asked her enough questions - and she answered with enough honesty - to know I would be safe in telling her I was trans, and so I came out to only this one person. I cannot stress enough how important this person is to me, not only in the context of forming a two-person queer community, but in regards to connecting to someone remarkable who makes the world a brighter place by being unapologetically themselves. A day or so after I came out to her, she found me panicking with the realization that, while I should have been storing my T at room temperature, there were no rooms to temperature out here and everything was far too hot. I moved the boxes from cache to cache, covering them in masking tape so their labels could not be read by anyone searching for supplies. We soon learned that beneath the black layer of wet-dead leaves, the forest floor itself clocked in at the average room temp.
I did my shot beside her hammock, while she made sure no one was coming near it. When I needed to go into the forest to unearth my T, I would ask her if she wanted to go geocaching with me, and we’d go up to dig it out from leaves, mud and spiders together. We would bury it again before dinner.
Her group left early, weeks before the rest of us. They had been doing their work before we even arrived. Before she left, though, all of us would spend time together cooling off in the water that ran by the place we now lived and worked. I had acquired a swim shirt shortly after deciding to study abroad. It took so long to find a shirt that worked, but the one I ended up with I love dearly. A gentle tone, with a relaxed fit styled for surfers. Green, not in the bright timbre of this forest, but a quieter color that only now reminds me of home. I was the only one out of all the men there who never exposed his chest. Even when we weren’t swimming, it was so hot that some opted to never wear a shirt at all. So, of course, there were questions.
I’ve had vitiligo since I was a child. White spots on my knees, hips and feet. Shifting like tidepools as I grew, my mom raised me while always comparing them to the sun-dappled coats of young white-tailed deer. She did this to prevent self-consciousness. I learned that the spattering of white spots is vital to a fawn’s survival, allowing it to hide in plain sight. These days, even my fingertips are stained with it.
My peers in the forest could see some of these spots, and I explained that there were places lacking pigment on my chest as well. I made it clear that these burned easily - which is true - and lied about a discomfort with their appearance, culminating in the need to cover up the spots that I could. As all good lies are, this one was rooted in the truth. There is skin on my chest sensitive to the sun, as scars tend to be, and I do prefer to cover it to avoid having to deal with the judgment of others in regards to its existence.
For the most part, this was unquestioned, aside from my peers often claiming they would never be like other people or judge me for however my vitiligo appeared, in which case I would remind them that I simply wasn’t comfortable no matter how kind they were about it. Besides, the girl who had promised so much regarding her commitment to accepting any and all people had been so quick to tell me of her partner’s trans masculine friend, whom she misgendered and misrepresented as much as each sentence would allow her. I told her, the way she described this person, he was surely a man. She told me he only wanted that to be the case. On days when the heat pressed into the weight of my shirt, I’d remember her voice clearer than others.
Another time, she sat with my roommate and I in the river’s wake. Instead of my reliable green surfing wear, I had chosen a warm-toned athletic material, which needed washing (an activity that was done in this very water, so wearing it there was prudent if only in that regard) and the shirt’s color was just light enough to allow the shadow of a tattoo to be visible.
She noticed this and began encouraging me to take off the shirt, wanting to see the tattoo in full, to which I reiterated that I did not want or plan to remove my shirt, using the same well-rehearsed excuses.
She, in turn, told my roommate to take my shirt off, and I knew with the unmistakable assuredness of someone raised with athletic siblings, that not only did I have no chance in physically preventing my new friend from removing my shirt, but there was a very good chance he, not realizing the stakes at all, would think this request either harmless or humorous enough to follow through.
The bottom of the river was stone, a type so difficult to walk on that we often wore our shoes, and it was too shallow to swim. I was closest to the dock, and the small patch of sand that separated the land from river stones. My one advantage was the fact that my roommate and friend would have to move through a painfully stony path to get to me, and before he could even get a few steps close I had moved to sand, grabbed the end of the dock and pulled myself out of the water. I was up the dock and back to the footpath before I turned around to answer their requests for me not to leave entirely.
There are two things about this that I remember very well: the first, is the fear I felt when I realized how powerless I would be to stop my friend from revealing my tattoo and the scars on my chest with it, and the way it felt when I pulled myself up the dock.
The second is the genuine sincerity in my friend’s face and voice when I turned, reiterated how I felt uncomfortable, and could clearly see he suddenly understood that I was serious and also did not feel entirely safe. He told me then he would never do something to make me feel uncomfortable. I know him well enough now to know this is the kind of person who cares very much for the impact he has on his friends. They stopped asking me about the shirt after that, except to try and encourage that I should not feel self-conscious, and could always put on extra sunscreen.
I thought a lot about Dr. James Barry, who padded himself and probably was uncomfortable in very hot weather. It was the closest thing I had to a story I could reassure myself with at that time, and I wished I’d learned more about different people and places and times. I spent so much time wondering what it must feel like to have the sun on your shoulders while swimming in such a place as this. What I want, one day, is for a guy to be able to sit on the dock I sat on, shoulders unburdened, not having to worry about the scars on his chest because they are almost taken for granted by anyone else around. Because someone else in the water has them too. Because someone was here with them last week, because it’s weird if a whole bunch of different groups are here and there’s not at least one trans kid. Because it looks good. Because they can do that without consequence. Aside from, perhaps, sunburn. To exist without consequence for being. It takes time to come to terms that this won’t happen in my world. Maybe later. Maybe I haven’t come to terms yet after all.
I still go geocaching.
I walk up a footpath on a Saturday, I’ve decided to film it this time, though I’ve never watched the footage and as far as I’m aware it only still exists on the very GoPro I used to document it. I’ve finally fallen into a routine now, and it’s well-rehearsed. For weeks, the one person I chose to come out to has been in a different country. She left me with notebooks and pencils. First aid. Some shampoo bottles - One of which I carved into the saddest yet effective STP device, as the toilet has miraculously held up but threatens her death each second.
I take the path to where it allows me to turn up into the forest, away from where we keep our hammocks. The earth changes so fast, and most of the ground is covered in a layer of fallen leaves and, below that, mud. I step over a piece of a fallen tree, up an incline, and reach an area in which a rare stone surface exists. It has some moss on it, but aside from that is an island of soft grey among its damp surroundings, and just large enough for me to sit on. I hadn’t even noticed it when I first came to bury my T, which rests between a tree and a stump. When I crane my neck all the way up, I can almost see the branches which held, for brief moments, the first wild capuchin monkeys I ever saw as they leapt from tree to tree.
I remove the leaves carefully, one by one. I only found a scorpion resting here once, and it was very small. Usually it’s spiders, and I’m not as afraid of them here as I used to be. Transgender people are capable of anything. Though if you plan on, as a transmasculine person, being stealth in a jungle, I cannot recommend enough the following:
Buy a swim shirt and (if possible) have vitiligo. If not, extremely sensitive skin and a history of brutal sunburn/sensitivity caused by anything else also works as an excuse
Bring an STP device.
Know exactly how you plan to store your T from the start, have a shovel and a secure container. Consider the temperature.
If you have the chance to collect hormone samples on any wildlife in the forest, there is nothing funnier than going through all five stages of grief as your incredibly straight peers ask you if you’re “doing hormones” only to realize they are talking about data processing.
When you realize you are the only person left in a certain area for the day because everyone else has taken the afternoon off and it is only accessible now by a boat (which is not in use until at least tomorrow), run to the stones that stretch out like beaches over the water and can’t be seen by any other vantage point. Take off your boots, zip your pants into shorts, leave your tools on the rocks, and finally, throw your shirt over the large fallen log that spans the river. Swim with the sun hitting your shoulders.
If you need a story, I’ll tell as much of mine as you’d like so you can bring that with you. Or you can bring this with you, whatever paper it’s written on, whatever words of it you remember.
Once the leaves are all removed, I take away a string that spans the width of the plastic box, tied to a nail on each side and secured in the earth. The box itself is covered in orange tape, stating the year and the message “do not move, never ever”, so that anyone finding it would assume it to be part of someone else’s work and just leave it well alone.
From there, I take out a thin and yellow waterproof bag, now mold-stained, which holds all the boxes of all the vials I need while I’m here. In a few weeks, we will be packing up much faster than we expected to need to, and I’ll be putting all this in my suitcase and somehow slipping it out through security without anyone noticing on the way home. And when I come back to this place, I will think for the first time that, well, maybe I was the first.
Maybe, in this green and dirt-stained place, I was the first to do this sort of thing, and it was isolating and difficult and scary, and people made comments that they didn’t realize frightened me, and for every day I wondered whether I was going to pull this off I was also given an example by my colleagues’ behavior as to why I felt the need to try anyways. Maybe I was the first, and maybe I’ll have to be the first somewhere else too, but I will not be the last.
I take out a repurposed shower caddie, now filled with carefully partitioned syringes and needles and the like, zip off the lower leg of my convertible and totally normal to wear cargo pants, and pull the shorts up to inject my weekly shot, before putting everything away again. And I leave the forest.