The hotel we were staying at for the conference was a 4-star hotel, with a breakfast buffet and omelet station, a pool with requisite poolside bar with expensive drinks, a small gym with too few TV channels, and multiple conference and meeting rooms where the AC was blowing too strong. Quite standard for a conference hotel, right?
Except for the darkly-clad man with the machine gun who I was surprised to see standing outside my hotel room as I left the elevator the first night after dinner. Slightly disconcerted, I muttered the mandatory “Bonsoir” and pushed past him into my room, bolting it shut with every lock it had. And no, this was not the hotel security guard, another permanent fixture on each floor; and he looked a lot less friendly than the Kazakh matron who had guarded my sleep back in the day.
The days to come would hold many similar unfamiliar sights, as our conference hotel was also the venue of a meeting of Francophone African politicians and VIPs. Every time I would venture from my room, I’d be greeted with a sweat-filled smell coming from the 20 people congregated around a VIP’s suite door, perched for hours on makeshift seats, suits crumpling under the insufficient hallway AC, poking away at cell phones and making last-minute arrangements for the dignitary – or just playing candy crush to bide the time. Frequenly I found myself in an elevator, surrounded by serious men in suits or military uniforms, catching the slightest expression of displeasure from their boss and reacting to it immediately by a flutter of activity.
It got to the point where I was so immune to it that one afternoon, determined to not let anything stand between me and a much-needed workout, I left my room and pushed past the crowds in my gym outfit before realizing the twenty men in suits also had 2 cameramen in their midst.
It’s possible I made it onto African TV then – or if not that day, surely the next when I was asked at the last minute to address the prime minister of the country…