In Angola, the other week, there were no matches.
You must experience it to know what this means: Anxious smokers pounced on travelers to ask them, for the love of God, for a bit of fire. They stopped cars to beg the use of their lighters. They seemed almost ready to sit down and rub two stones together, to strike the spark that would save their lives.
There were also no bars of soap, no milk, no aspirin, no razor blades or any of a number of other simple things of daily life. In some regions, the salt had run out more than three months earlier.
Even the Angolan doctors advised visitors not to eat raw vegetables or fruits that had not been peeled. The warning was academic, because there were no vegetables anyway, in any part of the country, and the only fruits we saw in three weeks were some shriveled apples in the hotel dining room.
The doctors also told us not to drink water that had not been boiled, except for mineral water. But there was no mineral water, because they had run out of bottle caps.
That poverty seemed a contradiction in Luanda, Angola's capital, whose modern radiant beauty had surprised me even from the air - a total contradiction of the conventional image of black Africa.
Nor did Luanda look much like the sleepy and Catholic Portugal of songs, but rather more like a modish resort on the Italian Riviera, with an endless breakwater topped by a line of uniform palm trees, and blue-glass skyscrapers looking out on the youthful sea.
Perhaps this vision seemed rarer to me because only four hours earlier I had seen the reality of black Africa during a stopover in Conakry, capital of Guinea, and I had still not recovered from its desolation.
There, in the airport, alongside the transatlantic planes of the great airlines of Europe, lay a dump filled with junk and the debris of charred airplanes.
In Conakry's only avenue, which bears the faraway name of Fidel Castro, there was a cheering show of political idealism: a heroic-size, full color picture of Guinea's President Sekou Toure, between two equal-sized pictures of Leonid Brezhnev and Mao Tse-tung.
Along the avenue, wide and pitted and swept by a surreal wind of dust, a few silent men wrapped in white rags moved as in a dream, and many sad Guinean women walked secretively: the tallest, most slender and perhaps most beautiful women in the world, wearing colored turbans and tunics of dusty rags.
But what had impressed me most about Conakry, from the time the plane door opened, was the smell.
In Rome, a few years earlier, the writer Alberto Moravia had told me of that smell of Africa, and I believe that he was the first one who told me that we also have a singular smell to Africans. Still, I could never have imagined it: It was pervasive, and seemed outside or above nature - less the smell of things or of animals or of people than the inevitable odor of life on the other side of the world.
After Conakry, arriving in Luanda on a splendid noon of the southern hemisphere's autumn was like stepping back into European civilization. The people, especially the young ones, did not walk around in local clothes as in Guinea, but looked as if they were on a beach in a capitalist summer: bright bell-bottom pants, tropical shirts and shoes with thick soles and high heels.
But from within, the city was no more than a dazzling hollow shell.
Local business, which under the Portuguese had been among the most prosperous in Africa, had come to a halt.
Warehouses still had electric signs proclaiming the great trademarks of the consumer society, but shop windows were broken and the shelves in disarray. On the terraces of the breakwater, there were cafes with awnings and restaurants with exquisite views. On downtown corners, there were cabarets with signs advertising naked women and branches of European banks. But all were closed.
In the bay, a deep, limpid aquarium where the gulls played at scattering the schools of fish, a number of ships stood at anchor awaiting their turn to unload because the docks were understaffed and the port facilities were dilapidated.
Visitors' eyes were caught by the constant crowds of poor people wandering the streets, apparently with no particular destination - not only in Luanda, but in Huambo, Lubango and other cities of the interior. They were city workers who travel on foot from the miserable outskirts where they live to the centers where they work.
Since the end of 1975, the government had set a very low fare for worker's transportation, but the effort died on paper: There are no buses, taxis or other means of urban transportation.
Luanda's most luxurious hotel, excellent in its modern installations and its view of the sea, offered only chicken or dried codfish to eat during the two weeks we were there. Sometimes diners were turned away an hour before closing time because the kitchen had run out of food.
One morning another traveler told me, elated, that he had seen an egg in the kitchen; but he was not able to get it served to him with his breakfast.
On a Tuesday, the air-conditioning stopped and the only person who nesday, the hot water stopped and nobody seemed to have noticed it; and on Thursday, there was no more room service. I asked a hotel employee when it would be restored, and got a Biblical answer: "Never ever." In fact, he said this not sadly, or spitefully, but with an air of relief.
The week before, the editor of Le Nouvel Observateur, Jean Daniel, had written from Paris in his editor's note: "In Angola, they laugh, they really laugh, 'It's out of order.'" It was an exaggeration, but not far from the truth. All it lacked was the explanation of how Angola had gotten to that impasse of misery and what the Popular Movement government had done it its first year to remedy the situation.
The general shortage began Nov. 11, 1975, the national day of independence, when the Portuguese army abandoned the country and it proclaimed itself the People's Republic of Angola.
Four hundred thousand Portuguese - the last generation of many who had, since a hundred years before New York was founded, freely enjoyed the fruits of the vast, rich territory that belonged to someone else - fled in the shadow of the departing colonial guns.
By agreement with the Popular Movement, the departing colonials could take their belogings with them. In fact, they took everything, in a devastating exodus with few historical precedents.
It wasn't hard.
Caught up in the immemorial lethargy of a dictatorship with divine pretensions, Portugal seemed less a European center of empire than the opposite - a skimping, gloomy colony of its own colonies in Africa.
A million unemployed, almost Portugal's entire proletariat, were outside the country doing the grimiest jobs of Europe's developed countries. Many had gone to Africa - especially to Angola, where the settlers had built themselves lovely, illusory cities to live in to the end of time.
So sure were the Portuguese settlers of their power and their future that they went on building 30-story, air conditioned hotels and pushing highways into elephant land, when colonial splender was already sentenced to death in the rest of Africa.
They seemed convinced that such prodigious works of civilization gave them the magic to cast a spell over the people's war that the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola had been waging since 1961, and which the dictatorship's army had been unable to defeat.
Later, spurred by fear of that war, the Portuguese settlers would flee to the arms of foreign money and the multinational companies that had barged in through the open door.
But the Portuguese kept control of the essential things of life for themselves - to the point that when the irreversible process they had never bothered to understand drove them out in a stampede, they needed only to carry away what they considered theirs to leave nothing for a free Angola.
In one ship chartered by the National Cash Register Co., which had many interests in the country, some 3,000 private cars sailed away. About 28,000 trucks were taken, some by ship and others by road to bordering countries, and those that could not be taken out were set on fire. Many taxis, buses, tractors and valuable pieces of machinery were thrown into the sea.
Since they knew that Angolan money would be of no use elsewhere, the fleeing Portuguese spent as much as possible before leaving, and in hour they devastated the local business scene.
Finally, in a spasm of fury, they smashed washbowls and toilets in the houses they were abandoning, they tore apart telephone wires and electrical cables, and they broke light bulbs, cords, locks and waterpipes.
Installations that were passed to the new state, such as hospitals and laboratories, had been given over apparently intact - but in each important sector the key piece was missing, and a full year of effort has not been able to get them working again.
The retreating army, for its part, left a trail of debris: It dynamited airports it had built for the war, it took out railroad tracks, it destroyed the port it had built and it machine-gunned cattle in the fields. In Luanda's harbor the hulks of two sunken frigates remain as a sad reminder of that scandalous flight.
What is hardest to understand is that army of demolition, is the same one that had just defeated the dictatorship in Portugal, and that in that illusory spring of 1975 it was creating the Revolution of the Red Carnations.
What little the Portugese failed to carry away or destroy the invading army of South Africa wound up destroying. Its regime of white savages paid the cost of their war with loot from Angola.
From the green plateaus of Huambo, the most fertile and poulated in the country, they carried off at least 15,000 head of cattle. They took sacks of coffee, fishmeal, historical relics and the best pieces of popular art.
At the end of five months of fighting, which the Angolans call "the second war of liberation," 144 bridges across the fabled rivers in the south had been destroyed. One of them was two miles long. It is calculated that rebuilding them all will take 10 years.
Luis de Sousa, press counselor at the Portuguese embassy, said:
"It is a factual error to accuse the retreating Portuguese and the army that deposed the Caetano regime of such destruction. It is also unjust. Ironically, reports issuing from Angola speak quite on the contrary, of the appropriation and shipment to Cuba of motor vehicles and other pieces of valuable equipment left behind by the Portuguese."
[Other observers who were in Angola at the time of the Portuguese exodus, and who have no connection with the Portuguese government, dispute Garcia Marquez' harsh assessment of the damage caused by departing colonialists.]