Suckered Twice?

by George Braine

Although we had not met, “Selena” and I had collaborated on a publication. A message arrived pleading with me to deliver a keynote speech at a conference she was organizing at her university.  The university would be unable to pay for my travel, but I was sympathetic, well aware of the limited resources, both material and financial, of institutions like hers. 

I agreed to travel at my expense but requested comfortable accommodation. Travel in “developing” countries had shown me the importance of a decent bed and a clean toilet. I was assured that the conference would be held at a center which had “(name of country)-American” in its title, where I would also be accommodated. So I went with the expectation of at least minimal comforts.

Alas, the Americans had left 20 years earlier, and the center was now a decrepit building that had been neglected for years. I was shown to a gloomy cubicle of a room, with a rugged bed and a threadbare mattress. Mosquitoes circled; bugs scuttled across the floor. Soon after arriving, needing a shower, I switched on the rusty water heater. It exploded in a shower of sparks, and I barely escaped electrocution.

Meals were provided at haphazardly arranged tables and benches, a place I wouldn’t dignify with the term “cafeteria”. The food, perhaps tolerable by local standards, had no appeal for foreign visitors. When I complained, Selena sent me home cooked meals. Seeing the miserable faces of other foreign attendees, I realized that they, too, were appalled at the “hospitality” but were too polite to complain.

Perusing the conference program, I discovered that my presentation would not be a keynote; I had been misled again. The local culture observed a strict division of labor, which was evident when the time came for my presentation. While I talked, my PowerPoint slides were projected by a minor official who sat at the computer terminal a good five meters from the speakers’ podium. My presentation lacked correlation between talk and text and must have been confusing to the audience.

Thankfully, I survived the three nights, and swore that I would never be fooled again.

A few years later, I received another invitation from Selena. After some negotiation, during which she agreed to reimburse my travel expenses and provide me with “Five Star” accommodation, I agreed to participate. The topic, academic publishing, was also appealing, because it would be directly useful to local participants.

Upon arrival, I was told that my accommodation would be at the university guest house, where the Vice Chancellor also stayed. Newly appointed, he had not moved into the official residence yet. If it was good enough for the VC, it was good enough for me! As it turned out, it was no better than a cheap motel in the United States.  I suspected that the oily meals were provided from street stalls in the neighborhood.

Three female academics, from the USA and the UK, had also been lured to the conference. I was shocked to see the accommodation they had been provided. The tiny rooms only had the bare necessities and appeared not to have seen a broom or a brush in months. The ceiling fans in the rooms and the outlet fans in the toilets were black with years of grime. Within a couple of days, one academic was miserably ill.

Once, we were driven to breakfast downtown. At every traffic stops, beggars in rags would approach our vehicle, displaying open ulcers and amputated limbs.  The female academics shrank in horror, and refused any food at the restaurant.

I had had enough. I “reprimanded” Selena, insisting that she invite us to a good restaurant for a decent meal. We were. A faculty member at the university, seeing our plight, also took us out for a nice meal.

During the closing ceremony, I sat next to the Vice-Chancellor, who told me that, seeing the lack of international collaboration at the university, he had increased the budget for conferences ten-fold since his arrival. Obviously, the invited speakers did not benefit from that largesse.

Or, under the delusion of “serving the community”, had I been suckered twice?