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Capital of Ghosts

I was working for a magazine in Abidjan, capital of Cote d’Ivoire (better known as 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 Felix Houphouet-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 over 10,000 lights, and, to cap it off, Christendom’s tallest church–all of it dead-ending in jungle.

Like Belmopan in Belize, Brasilia and other instant capitals, it was not an overnight success. We arrived basted and broiled by crowded bush taxis, 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 Ivoirian 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 La Belle Langue. 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 had taken $300 million to construct the Vatican-like basilica, plus an annual maintenance fee of $1.5 million. It was only one of the many civic improvements lavished on Yamoussoukro, Houphouet-Boigny’s native village, since the president led 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 fairytale moat.

Ornamental plastic crocodiles floated in the moat. Reaching through the bars to touch one, I jumped back, discovering they weren’t so ornamental. At five o’clock sharp, the 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 attieke (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 it the highest church in the world. What’s more, it’s also the largest air-conditioned space on the planet. If Cote d’Ivoire’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 there were only five other tourists knocking about this imperial backlot, 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 resembled Houphouet-Boigny himself. Prominent members of the Ivoirian Catholic church were so embarrassed by the costs of the project that 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 Hotel 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 get out of town and pay our hotel bill, we wound up a couple of days later 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 Houphouet-Boigny’s fantasyland dancing in the tropical mirage.

[1]JOHN M. EDWARDS is a New York-based freelance writer and editor. His travel writing has appeared in Grand Tour, Escape, Transitions Abroad, Conde Nast Traveler, Emerging Markets, Coffee Journal, Literal Latte, Lilliput Adventure, Big World, Endless Vacation, Adventure Journal, and Artdirect.

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