ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — We entered the West African village of round thatched huts just before dusk and went first to greet the chief, an old, toothless man in a long robe, gracious and dignified.
Then the panther dance began. Strange instruments of calabash, wood and metal led a procession of cartwheeling boys and dancing girls. Suddenly the panther-men and their cubs leaped in, covered from cat's ears to paws in tawny spots.
Aglow in the sunset light, they danced the elaborate acrobatic mystery learned during Poro initiation in the Sacred Forest.
Our guide was used to a different world: The T-shirted Gaston lives among the glittering skyscrapers of Abidjan, 400 miles south. There the ambiance is distinctively French; 30,000 French still live in Ivory Coast. It's a world of sidewalk cafes, elegant shops, corporate headquarters and a large international population, a city that pulses with success.
Success is a big part of Ivory Coast's story. The government has been successful from the start: President Houphouet-Boigny was one of the architects of independence from France and has been president ever since. And the economy has been successful: Ivory Coast is black-ruled Africa's most prosperous nation, a magnet for Africans from all over the region.
But culture is just as big a part of the story. This country, with its 60 ethnic groups, is known for the rich complexity of its art and folklore; these traditions are still strong.
For the traveler, Ivory Coast is a chance to experience sophisticated modern Africa and the still vibrant culture of the African bush. As a bonus there are mosques, elephants, beach, scenery and the constant spectacle of the passing crowd. One sees men in embroidered robes and women in long, brightly patterned cotton skirts, blouses draped fetchingly off one shoulder, hair braided into baroque fantasies, babies on their backs and bundles on their heads.
Speeding into Abidjan on the six-lane freeway, the contrasts strike immediately: The roadside becomes a riot of pattern and color as laundrymen lay clothes out to dry. At a stoplight, traders hawk videotapes. In town, a woman in a flowing caftan walks past the Yves Saint-Laurent boutique with an enamel basin on her head; in the basin is a computer manual.
Set on a network of lagoons, Abidjan includes the city center on the Plateau, the traditional African quarters of Treichville and Adjame, and the posh suburbs of Cocody and Riviera.
Role of a Mask
Start a visit to Abidjan at the National Museum, a good introduction to the rich and living art that will surround you in Ivory Coast. The curator described the role of one mask in the ritual interrogation of a corpse to determine the cause of his death.
"Is this still done?" we asked.
"It was done in my village three months ago," he replied.
If you're thinking of buying some art, go to the Hotel Ivoire shop, a warehouse of Ivorian carvings. Examine these to get a feel for quality and price, then head for one of Abidjan's treasure-packed markets.
Bargaining is an art form: Expect to knock the first price in half, and pay no more than 1/3 to 1/2 the Ivoire shop's price.
Those who thrive on the din, smells, crowds and high-pressure salesmanship of a huge Third World market love Treichville Market; others prefer the upper-class Cocody Market, smaller, with more people who speak English.
There's also the Senegalese Market on the Plateau, with art from all over Africa, but it's not always worth the insistent sales pitch. All have heaps of masks, ivory, malachite, beads, tapestries and hand-woven cloth.
Mealtimes in Abidjan present a cosmopolitan choice, from French haute cuisine to African food, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Chinese, Italian or American cooking.
And evenings aren't dull. We danced to live music at Treichville's raunchy Canne a Sucre and attended the fashion show of an Ivorian Paris designer crammed with dressed-up Abidjan society.
Many tourists never leave Abidjan, but that's a big mistake. Outside the city you really experience the charm of the Ivorians, the fascination of their culture and the richness of the land, with its 600 varieties of trees and abundant agriculture.
We flew 400 miles to Man, landing on a dirt runway amid green jungly mountains. At the airport a group of white-robed Muslims waited to greet a man returning from Mecca. We left immediately on a short drive into the hills to the Liana Bridge, a vine bridge strung across a ravine.
We stopped at the ivory carver and explored the Man market, a lively, friendly place where women sell cloth, fruit and vegetables arranged in artistic display, and men sell masks of the Dan and Gere tribes, hand-woven robes and bronze statues.
Festival Dance Time
Then on to the village of Blole to see a festival dance. The chief dancer, wearing a Dan mask and raffia from neck to toe, sent the village children shrieking in gleeful terror, then danced on parallel bars held aloft by the band.