Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The best thing about geocaching

Last August, I was amazingly spontaneous for once. I suddenly started geocaching.

You know – as it says on the website, it’s the world’s largest treasure hunt. There are boxes and containers all around us, big, small and tiny, in urban and rural areas, stealthy buggers just waiting for a newbie player to download a free app showing locations and descriptions of caches and to go find these little treasures. It is a hobby that first saw the light of day around the turn of the millennium, with the advent of the new advanced GPS technology. Some pioneers of the technology wanted to test GPS accuracy by hiding containers in the woods and seeing if others would be able to find them based on their coordinates. That turned out to be more fun than could ever be expected. Now, as we all have a GPS device in our pocket, millions of people are into geocaching.

I had known about the concept, but I had never given it more thought. Last summer, however, I was under more workload than usual, and I had a craving for something new and exciting to refresh my head in the evenings. Then I happened to land on the geocaching website, signed up to see if there are caches in the area, only to find out that the nearest one was... 150 meters from my front door, by the side of a little footpath I knew so well?

That’s when it hit me: the exhilarating feeling that the world around me was suddenly full of little secrets. Little hidden treasures that you did not see until you went looking for them.

I’m certainly not writing from the expert position of a hardcore hobbyist. My current cache count is 74, which is not much compared to the thousands or tens of thousands that geocaching veterans have. Still, in those few months when I have had time for it, geocaching has given me loads of fun and enjoyment, and I have become familiar with the good, the better, and the best things about it. Speaking about those…

For one thing, I went geocaching for exercise. Jogging and cycling are good for health, but so hard to keep doing regularly without extra motivation. Geocaching provided that motivation. Suddenly I was spending my evenings on long cycling trips or discovering recreation grounds that I never had known to exist. That was great.

Even better was the way geocaching makes your surroundings come to life in a novel way. I was jogging up remote hills, going down forest footpaths, inspecting walls, park benches, statues and streetlights, reaching into innocent-looking bushy pine trees to make them give away their secrets. Uninteresting places that used to serve only as life’s wallpaper started to become my places. They now had stories and memories attached to them – my story of finding their secret, and the story of the kind soul who placed and maintained the cache for the enjoyment of others. It was like the world started to be populated with these little rabbit-holes that most people knew nothing about. There is some unashamedly childish joy in it.

However, it took me some time to start appreciating the thing I now consider as the best thing about geocaching. The best thing is that this activity is possible for me in the first place.

After having started in the USA, geocaching has gone worldwide. The global map of geocaches shows quite clearly, however, which parts of the world are geocaching-friendly. Europe is pretty much covered in caches, as are North America and Australia (well, the parts of the latter two that are not covered in ice and sand respectively), Japan and New Zealand. Elsewhere caches are much more sporadic.

No wonder, of course. It makes sense that a purely recreational activity like geocaching is strongly correlated with general standards of living. It is something you do just for fun, and that requires that your days have hours that are not needed for more vital things. Being able to do things for fun is a luxury in itself.

But there is a deeper point. Geocaching requires that you can trust your environment – or maybe more to the point, that your environment trusts you. In very many parts of the world that just is not true. I’ll explain what I mean.

Geocaches need to be well hidden (and kept secret!) for two reasons: to provide a challenge to the seeker, and to avoid being vandalized. That is why they are either in relatively remote locations or extremely well hidden in busier locations. In either case, looking for a geocache unavoidably involves some snooping-around type of behaviour that could look suspicious in mistrustful eyes. Sometimes, when looking for a remote forest cache, the thought has crossed my mind that someone could imagine me going to a drug stash – or even more unfortunately, someone could have unknowingly placed a cache near a real drug stash. It is only because those possibilities were improbable enough that I felt comfortable hunting for the caches. Before I explicitly thought about it, I had never really appreciated the fact that my environment poses no significant dangers of that type.

The same goes for urban caches. Sometimes I found myself searching for a cache in an empty parking lot or by the side of a vacant building. I was very aware that if an onlooker, guard, or even a policeman should come and demand to know what I’m doing, I would owe them an explanation. But for a long time I just took for granted the obvious fact that, luckily, I am of the right colour and right appearance that I could always reasonably count on the other to trust my explanation – and that I am in a country where people generally ask before shooting. It could so easily be otherwise.

Right now Americans are enthusiastically embracing another game that sends people out to explore: Pokémon GO. Much like geocaching, it makes players go into the wide world searching for an element of magic and mystery added into the everyday world – although in this case in the form of virtual creatures rather than physical things. The sudden explosion of success enjoyed by Pokémon GO has immediately made evident some unwanted consequences this type of game may have. There was an incident of robbers using the game to lure victims into their trap. And there is this story of a black American man starting the game in high spirits, then quitting with the sad realization that playing could very realistically get him killed. It is something that an unfortunate geocacher could realize as well. In many places, wandering around a random location seemingly searching for something can be more than just potentially goofy. If your appearance is wrong, it can be lethally dangerous.

Geocachers sometimes run into bad experiences, but those rarely seem to be more dangerous than angry landowners claiming (rightly or otherwise) that a cache has been placed on their private property. (Geocaching is governed by a strict ethical code.) Still, when thinking about going to an urban cache, I tend to consider quite carefully if the cache is placed so that someone could misunderstand my intentions. Even if the answer is no, another thought nowadays sometimes crosses my mind: If I was a black man, could I do this?

Moreover, it is very easy to forget that it is a blessing to live in a society where an activity like geocaching is allowed to exist in the first place. After all, it is a kind of a playful secret society. The players are in possession of confidential information about hidden objects that contain notes; the logbooks of geocaches generally contain only dates and names of their finders, but in principle they could be used to exchange any kind of messages. In a more authoritarian society there would surely be a need to keep a much more serious aura of secrecy around the geocaching hobby, just because of the endless suspicions it might raise, no matter how innocent the motivations of the players. After a totalitarian revolution, geocaching would be among the first things to be banned.

There you have it: my opinion on the best thing about this splendid hobby. Geocaching is an expression of freedom. Being able to do it safely is an indication that you are allowed to make the world your playground. The world around you exists for you and other fellow citizens, not the other way round. You are allowed to go out there and spontaneously do things – to go out and play – protected by the prima facie assumption that you are not doing anything bad.

I’m glad I started geocaching, because I came to appreciate my privileges in a new way. The kind of basic trust the game requires is not a part of the permanent structure of the world, something that could be taken for granted. It is something that orderly societies have achieved through many struggles, and something that can very easily be lost. And that basic trust is something that some people around me may not be enjoying, even though their lack is invisible to me.

I have never appreciated that basic trust more than nowadays.

(Credits for Pokémon GO-related posts in G+ to Janos Honkonen and Kaj Sotala.)

[EDIT 18.7.2016: Some Russian authorities have realized that Pokémon GO is a threat to society.]

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