By Taylor Jennings
Seventeenth Annual Solas Award Silver Winner in the Adventure Travel category
Of all the gin joints in all the hotels in all the countries in Africa, the Hotel Ricardo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, probably most resembles Rick’s Café in ‘Casablanca’ if not physically, at least metaphysically.
It was long after sunset when we left the endless desert behind and entered a populated area where golden charcoal fires flickered across the hills. Accordingly, I was completely unprepared for the shock of electricity when the driver stopped at the end of a short driveway in front of a two-story tin-roof hotel with a welcoming open doorway.
Dozens of eyes stared down as I registered, from the mounted trophy heads of some of Africa’s most exotic wildlife. Water buffalo, antelope, tiger, and eland hung high up over the bar and in the large dining room; a collection of half a century of hunting from the glory days of the great white hunters, including, I learned, owner Ricardo Julia’s father. Handing me a key Ricardo said that these days he contents himself with organizing safaris with cameras rather than guns.
“Have you taken your malaria tablets?” Ricardo’s wife Paulina asked as I followed her up some stairs. “The rooms are airtight and we spray while you are at dinner but I always advise guests not to forget to take their anti-malaria medication.” The room was light and airy with a mosquito net over the bed. I later learned that Paulina was Chilean and had wanted to be a nurse before she met Ricardo and came to live in Africa.
That evening she waited tables on the torch-lit terrace around the blue tiled pool and served me and the few other guests a perfectly prepared French menu that was a dramatic improvement over what I had been eating for the previous months traveling around French West Africa.
“We grow all our own vegetables.” She said, spooning a mixture of peas, carrots and what turned out to be goat meat atop the rice on my plate. She placed a bottle of French wine in front of me, along with a carafe of water. “Don’t be afraid to drink the water. We have a deep well that avoids ground pollutants.”
I took up residence at the poolside terrace during my stay at the Hotel Ricardo, eating most my meals there and setting my laptop on a table in a shady corner to write while discreetly observing comings and goings.
One day, dripping wet from a late afternoon swim, I went inside to get a cool drink from the bar, a large towel tied, sarong-like around my waist. I was welcomed by a leathery French Canadian with fuzzy grey hair sprouting from his head. He said he was from a nearby game reserve and insisted I shake hands with Gaston, a tame chimpanzee he had placed on a nearby barstool. Gaston wasn’t interested in shaking my hand and preferred to wrap all four of his long limbs around me in a tight embrace. The Canadian had to extract me finger by finger to the amusement of the other bar patrons.
The clientele held endless fascination and caused me to imagine I heard the faint tinkle of a piano playing “As Time Goes By”. There were no tourists and most of the guests were on some kind of business they might or might not wish to discuss. Like the Nigerian with a briefcase and impeccable white robes which opened to reveal a holstered gun, or the group of Belgian mercenaries in berets and combat boots passing through on their way to or from some conflict zone. Then there was the trio of jolly jazz musicians from Potsdam in former East Germany who overcame the language barrier one evening with mime and a caliber of jazz normally enjoyed in West European capitals.
My most frequent dinner companion was a doctor from New Zealand who was traveling around the continent lecturing on the dangers of HIV and AIDS. “The men are convinced they can’t get it from virgins so they’re screwing the youngest girls they can find.”
Most evenings found me in the bar enjoying an unusual pleasure for a woman traveling alone as I commandeered a stool near the kitchen whenever Paulina was tending bar. She was a lithe, energetic woman with close cropped dark hair and olive skin that, like her husband, had developed a mahogany sheen after decades in the African sun. Over the course of several evenings I learned the story of how she met Ricardo and came to live in Africa while indulging my weaknesses for Napoleon VSOP.
In the beginning I spoke French with the Julias but when Paulina learned I spoke rusty Spanish from my days in Mexico, she often reverted to her beloved mother tongue. Ricardo, born and bred in Burkina Faso, had largely forgotten the Spanish of his father and spoke African tinted French and several local dialects. He proudly called himself African and rarely left the continent other than for an occasional business trip to Europe and the memorable visit to Chile to persuade Paulina to marry him
Ricardo’s father came from Valencia to what was then Upper Volta in the 1940’s and built the Hotel Ricardo as a hunting lodge in the waning days of French colonial rule, before lions and elephants became protected species and hunting them was banned.
“When I was sixteen, I came with my father on a business trip to Burkina Faso,” Paulina said, carefully wiping wine glasses and holding them up to the light. “Ricardo and his family were distant cousins in Santiago but I wasn’t at all interested in meeting a boy two years older than me. I was however, excited about the possibility of seeing lions, tigers and elephants.”
At that moment Ricardo passed through from the kitchen area and hearing the tail end of the conversation, gave me a friendly wink.
“I didn’t speak French and found myself more and more in Ricardo’s company. N’est-ce pas, amorcito?” Paulina and Ricardo had their own French-Spanish patois.
“For me it was a ‘coup de foudre’.” Ricardo leaned over Paulina to wash his hands in the sink, poured himself a shot of the VSOP and came around to sit on the stool next to me.
“When Paulina returned to Santiago I couldn’t get her out of my mind.” He tossed the contents of the glass back with a hand that would have looked more at home hefting a beer mug as Paulina resumed her story.
“He turned up unannounced at our door the following year. The maid tried to send him away as he looked pretty wild by our standards with long hair and a shaggy beard. But he was very insistent in his bad Spanish.”
“I think I frightened your mother.” Ricardo said and they laughed at the memory. “When she asked what brought me so far, I shocked her by saying, ‘To ask for the hand of your daughter in marriage.’ I think I even shocked Paulina.”
“Por supuesto. I was only 17. My mother nearly fainted and later asked me, ‘Who is this curious African?’ I had to remind her he was a cousin from a good family but she wasn’t reassured.”
I asked Paulina if she’d fallen in love with Ricardo at the time.
“I must continue my rounds.” Ricardo winked at me again and slid off the stool.
“What did I know of love?” Paulina shrugged, carefully wiping the counter. “He knew how to use a gun and could skin animals.”
Ricardo finally persuaded Paulina’s parents, and Paulina herself, by refusing to return to Africa without her.
“By that time I had turned 18 and Ricardo had cut his hair and shaved off his beard. We got married and returned to Africa thirty years ago and we have worked together ever since to restore this hotel to its former glory while raising two children. I have never looked back.”
The day before I left Ouagadougou, Paulina hosted an eclectic gathering of locals and the few guests remaining at the Ricardo for a sumptuous mid-day feast in the restaurant dining room, undoubtedly the coolest place in town. She created a baronial atmosphere under the watchful eyes of the trophies around the walls, placing the tables end to end down the center of the large room and covering them with overlapping white cloths. Paulina and Ricardo held court opposite each other in the middle, giving the impression there might be ‘above the salt’ and ‘below the salt’ positions which clearly was not the case.
Paulina placed me between her sister who was visiting from Santiago and only spoke Spanish and a doctor from Cameroun; all around, the soft buzz of French punctuated by an occasional shout of “salute!” from Gianni, an Italian engineer working on a vast irrigation project who was constantly raising his glass to propose toasts.
Toward the end of the meal, the New Zealand doctor leaned across the table toward me. “Do you have the impression that Claude Raines arranged this gathering by rounding up the usual suspects?”
He had read my mind.
Pamela Taylor is a journalist who has lived and worked in Europe (East and West) for more than 30 years. Now based in Geneva, Switzerland, her non-journalistic writing is under the pen name Taylor Jennings. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org