I was working for a magazine in Abidjan, the principal city of the Ivory Coast, when some co-workers and I set off on a pilgrimage to one of the strangest ghost towns in Africa: Yamoussoukro. The official capital of the country since 1983, this modern "lost city" is the architectural hallucination of late President Filix Houphoukt-Boigny, who decided to spend a good chunk of the nation's treasury to plunk a touch of modern France in the middle of nowhere. The city sports deserted Parisian-style boulevards, empty eight-lane highways adorned with more than 10,000 lights and, to cap it off, Christendom's tallest church -- all of it dead-ending in jungle.
We arrived in Yamoussoukro basted and broiled by the crowded bush taxi, feeling like extras from "Apocalypse Now." When we tried to check into a hotel, the concierge first told us it was full, then ran after us, yelling, "Messieurs!" Of course there were rooms -- the town was a veritable morgue; we'd simply broken Ivorian protocol by neglecting to dash him with a little baksheesh. We later met the other guest, a Frenchman who read old copies of Le Monde every day in the lobby.
Venturing outdoors into the equatorial heat, we found at least one corner of activity, the local marketplace, where we soon attracted a parade of children pointing out places of interest in French. Walking down the middle of a deserted superhighway, we then caught our first glimpse of the main attraction, the giant cathedral, hovering over the African bush like the Hindenburg.
It cost $300 million to construct the Vatican-like basilica, plus an annual maintenance fee of $1.5 million. And this was only one of the many civic improvements Houphoukt-Boigny had lavished on Yamoussoukro, his native village, after leading the country to independence in 1960. There was an 18-hole, tournament-quality golf course, the two most modern colleges in West Africa, a gorgeous mosque and the president-for-life's palatial residential compound -- straight out of a James Bond flick, complete with perimeter walls and a fairy-tale moat.
Ornamental plastic crocodiles floated in the moat. I reached through the bars to touch one, then jumped back -- those crocs weren't so ornamental after all. At 5 o'clock sharp, an elaborately robed Malian caretaker arrived on the scene, swinging a bucket full of raw meat. A small crowd gathered. The feeding frenzy ended with the sacrifice of a live white chicken as the caretaker ululated wildly, splashing barefoot and unmolested among the reptile-infested waters.
Suddenly hungry, we quickly retired to a nearby maquis in the Quartier Dioulakro that served up tasty braised chicken, kedjenou (chicken, vegetables and a mild sauce), foutou (boiled yams or plantains pounded into a sticky mash) and attiiki (a couscous made from manioc). Here we were the life of the party. While accustomed to the occasional French tourist, Yamoussoukrans clearly regarded a group of Americans as an amusing novelty. Back at our hotel, we fell asleep to the far-off beat of voodoo drums.
The next day we set off for the cathedral. Approaching the inflated mirage, our faces caked with red dust and dry throats rasping for moisture, we gladly paid out piles of CFA francs for bottles of pop supplied by enterprising locals outside the gates. The post-Renaissance-style Basilica of Our Lady of Peace took only three years to balloon to the size of St. Peter's (which, by comparison, was under construction for a century). Though its cupola is marginally lower (only because of papal intervention), the gigantic cross on top boldly proclaims its status as the highest church in the world. What's more, it's also the largest air-conditioned space on the planet. If the Ivory Coast's 1 million Catholics (out of a total population of 12.5 million) were inclined to visit simultaneously, the seven-acre outdoor plaza, which resembles a grandiose granite and marble Roman runway, could hold as many as 300,000 of them. Yet when we visited there were only five other tourists knocking about this imperial back lot, which looked out over jungle and coffee plantations.
Distinctly un-African in appointments, the cathedral has 36 spectacular stained-glass windows (handmade in France). All the figures in them are white except for a lone black pilgrim who resembles Houphoukt-Boigny himself. Prominent members of the Ivorian Catholic church were so embarrassed by the cost of the project they tried to convince Pope John Paul II not to consecrate it.
We walked to a nearby village, where very poor, very friendly people lounged in the shade by a malarial pond to escape the heat. A village elder pointed to the basilica, rising over the landscape like Ayers Rock, and smiled ironically, as if to say the country's recent economic misfortunes were somehow linked to it.
Over at the nearby four-star Httel President, where for a small fee (large by African standards) we gained entry to the pool, prices in these inflated times were soaring: $150 a night despite a ghostly 5 percent occupancy rate. Even with the large sums, the staff refused to change our American Express traveler's checks because they were in dollars, not CFA francs. It was the same with other banks and hotels. To pay our hotel bill and get out of town, we wound up trading on the black market with the ubiquitous Lebanese shopkeepers. They were happy to oblige, gave us an outstanding rate and were ready for future transactions. "How much you want to change? You want a million, we can change a million."
Finally flush in CFAs, we piled into a bush taxi and hit the vacant highway. Looking back, I saw heat waves boiling up from the blacktop and Houphoukt-Boigny's fantasyland dancing in the tropical mirage.