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The Bear's Progress

SkeptoBear's trip to James Randi's Amazing Meeting 2004

In January 2004, Peter Bowditch, Alynda Brown and SkeptoBear travelled a long way to represent Australian Skeptics at James Randi's Amazing Meeting. The story can finally be told.

The first day
It's a long way to Tipperary, and even longer to San Diego

There was excitement and a sense of panic at both Ratbag Castle and Skeptics West as SkeptoBear and his vice-presidential cohort of handlers went through their last-minute checklists - passports, money, credit cards, warm clothes because it's winter over there, t-shirts because winter in Mexico, California and Nevada is like winter in North Queensland, books for reading, books for getting autographed, more money, computer and all its attachments, emails from Qantas confirming bookings, ...

The convoy of travellers and families finally arrived at the airport and luckily found parking spots within an affordable taxi-fare's distance from the terminal. Once inside the terminal, bureaucracy and computers struck and the travellers were told that despite making bookings seconds apart they were being seated many rows apart on the aeroplane. Explanations to the Qantasbot that the seats had to be booked separately as two frequent flier accounts were involved fell on deaf ears. The consolation was that everyone was at least on the same aircraft and would therefore presumably all arrive at the destination at about the same time. At least we had arrived at the airport sufficient hours before flight time to comply with security requirements, although had we arrived six hours earlier we might have been able to sit together.

Seats confirmed and hold luggage on its way to wherever it goes before they lose it, it was time for lunch. It was at lunch that one member of the left-behinds made his play to show how disappointed he was at not going on the trip. Tricking SkeptoBear into a hug (although bears seldom need much encouragement to hug), a small Irish terrorist covered himself with banana custard and transferred some of the pudding onto The Bear's pristine fur. It would be many hours before The Bear would experience the ramifications of that hug.

Soon enough it was time to pass through the last security check, so the travellers took their tearful leave of their loved ones and started the actual journeying part of the journey. Through customs with all those forms to fill out, through the security check (once with shoes and belt, once without), past the duty free stores with their enticing displays of booze and smokes, and into the Qantas VIP lounge. There was time to relax before the flight, consume some last-minute hot and cold beverages, and check the email. There was a slight problem with the computer wanting to log in to the airport's own wireless network, but it was thought that in these security-conscious days it was probably better to use Telstra's hotspot rather than to hack the airport system. Soon, the call came to board the aircraft and upon offering our boarding passes to the smiling person at the gate we were roughly told to join another queue - everyone was sitting together. Could it get any better?

At last, everyone was on the plane to the other side of the world. The seating arrangements had been made so that all the people who booked together could sit together, stuff had been stowed in the overhead lockers, MP3 players and trashy novels had been distributed in the appropriate seat pockets, the notes from the Fear of Flying course had been glanced at one more time, and SkeptoBear and his companions sat back to await the safety announcement. The Bear looked at his handler's shirt and tried to think of a suitable adjective. (Only later was he to learn that Bob Carroll of the Skeptics Dictionary would use the word "colourful".) All was in readiness for the great adventure.

The first day again (after crossing a date line)

The flight itself was as uneventful as everyone hoped it to be, especially the bear companion who had just finished a Fear of Flying course. Did you know that you can strike turbulence at the cruising height of a 747? Neither did we. The only other tense moment was when one of The Bear's companions noticed that the other occupant of the row of seats was wearing a Linux t-shirt. There was strong temptation to ask him if he had refused a Windows seat, but the urge passed and peace was preserved. It is a very long way from Sydney to Los Angeles, but by the wonders of modern technology you can arrive in LA three and a half hours before you leave Sydney and still have almost a full day ahead of you. This is good, because you may need that day for customs and immigration.

Luckily, The Bear and his companions came from a country considered friendly by the USA, so it only took about an hour and three or four passport inspections to get through immigration. One strange thing was the yellow and green forms everyone had to fill in. They appeared to be identical in wording, but one was for people with visas and one for others. SkeptoBear wondered about the reaction should a traveller answer "Yes" to questions such as "Are you a member of a terrorist organisation?" or "Are you carrying any illegal drugs or weapons?", but felt it unwise to ask an immigration official for clarification. After immigration comes customs, where you collect your baggage. In customs, there is The Dog.

SkeptoBear first became aware of The Dog when something grabbed the bag in which he was travelling and started to shake it. The shaker was a basset hound. Attached to the hound was a lead, and on the other end of the lead was a lady with a Glock 9mm pistol. The Gun Lady started the conversation by saying "Don't worry, he's only a working dog", and then asked what was in the bag. SkeptoBear popped his head out and was immediately seized on the nose by The Dog, who proceeded to shake him violently. The Gun Lady wanted to know if the party was smuggling any fruit, and it was then that the sabotage by the small Irish terrorist became apparent. SkeptoBear was carrying the scent of bananas. One can only imagine the extent of dog savagery had The Bear smelled of cannabis. Everything was soon smoothed over and the Gun Lady wished everyone a nice day. Thoughts of asking the Gun Lady for a photograph of her, The Bear and The Dog were quickly swept away by mental images of strip searches and two tired travellers assuming the position against a wall for fourteen hours while customs officials shredded luggage.

We rented a car (at the very special rate of $37 per day, or $400 for the three days that we needed it!), and managed to find the freeway south towards San Diego. Our first stop was at the picturesque town of San Juan Capistrano, where two tasks had to be achieved. One was lunch. The other was a visit to the office of one of the many nemeses of one of The Bear's companions. This particular nemesis, the PR person for many medical quacks, apparently operates out of a post box and had threatened much anguish and ambushing with lawsuits. He had been told many times that we were coming, but, alas, when the group got there he was away and all anyone could do was to read the local paper and check house prices. (Expensive, but bargains by Sydney standards.) There were no swallows in Capistrano either. Most disappointing.

Finally we were in San Diego. San Diego has traffic. If you are unfamiliar with the town, missing the turnoff to the motel requires going about a quarter of the way to Mexico, coming back past San Diego on a freeway to a point about 15 kilometres north of the city and then launching back into the peak hour traffic. This takes an hour and a half. It takes five minutes and three right turns if you are a local. At last, the tired team settled into the motel. A nearby shopping centre provided essential supplies of take-away Chinese food and beer, and the travellers then went to their rooms to get a good night's rest. The real work would start the next day. Tijuana.

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