AA Gill: Extreme of consciousness

AA Gill in Havana, Cuba

AA Gill in Havana, Cuba

One day a refugee camp, the next a South-of-France soirée. AA Gill straddles the travel divide in his first-ever column for Gourmet Traveller, published in July 2004.

Chad, a land where the sun doesn't just shine, it polishes and scrubs until you feel like a gay gardener's fly button. Chad, where a thin stick's shadow counts as airconditioning, where you can fry an egg on the Land Rover bonnet - in the middle of the night. Chad, where you don't sweat and you don't pee, you just evaporate. I've been to some hot places, and in general I don't mind. It's certainly preferable to the alternative. But the heat in Chad is something else: 34C in the shade at 6am.

You get the feeling that Chad is only a country because cartographers, like quilt makers, can't abide gaps. It's essentially somewhere to put the right-hand corner of the Sahara, and to stop Libya slipping into Nigeria. The capital, N'Djamena, has an airport. It has an airport to make itself feel like a destination. For some fathomless reason, aeroplanes seem to think it's a destination, too. It's a two-storey place of whitewashed breeze-block, barbed-wire, filigreed shade trees and dusty dogs who are all cousins.

It's tough travelling in Chad. You either drive in the bucking, tyre-sucking mine-strewn roads in a bread-oven Toyota or you fly. To fly, you have to beg a ride from the United Nations or a charity. Getting charity from a charity is tough. You get bumped off. And that means you can get left for a week in some place so bereft it doesn't even have flies.

I was here to cover a story about refugees from a nasty genocidal war being waged across the border in Sudan. You don't feel like eating much in a refugee camp, even when there is something to eat. But after 10 days of tepid, sulky water and melted chewing gum, you begin to feel like you're self-ingesting.

I was lying one sweltering night under a mosquito net up against a mud wall watching the shooting stars spin past a minaret of a distant mosque. We were right on the border with Sudan, over a dry stream. The other half of the town lay deserted, pockmarked in the silver light.

"If you could eat anything, what would it be right now?" asked the photographer. Oh, don't start with the last-orders desert-island stuff. It just makes you miserable and ravenous. I haven't thought about food for days. "Yeah, but what would it be?" I closed my eyes and saw, smelt, touched and tasted two soft-boiled eggs in a blue-and-white eggcup. A baguette with pale white, sweet, cool butter and runny wild-strawberry jam. A bowl of coffee with just a touch of chicory. A jug of hot milk. I could feel the thick napkin and smell the early-morning lavender.

Now, I've often played "My Favourite Meal", and over the years it's evolved into quite an elaborate repast, demanding a number of chefs, an epicurean treasure-trove of ingredients and a platoon of staff to prepare and serve. I never imagined that when the chips were down, so to speak, I'd conjure up a continental breakfast.

"What would you have?" I asked the snapper. "Oh, I'll have what you're having. Order two. Tell room service to mind the goats. And to bring some ice - I'd like some ice."

We did the story. We toured the camps and the therapeutic feeding centres for the tiny children that lie, listless with wide eyes, too exhausted to cry, and we started to make the long trip back to N'Djamena, getting to a French Foreign Legion airbase to catch a UN flight.

Nervously, I waited for the fixer to allot our seats. Just as we were about to get on, a Jeep spun up with an immaculate government minister in it. He stepped out with a French paratrooper escort. He's going to nick my seat. Then behind him a pick-up arrived, and in the back of the pick-up was a crate, and in the crate, nearly head high, was a lady ostrich.

The captain, a Dane in Ray-Bans, took one chilly Nordic look and said, "The ostrich is a flightless bird." I bounded up the steps and strapped myself in. The minister bumped out a relief nurse who'd just spent three months in an emergency hospital and had a weekend's leave, and we taxied off. I watched the paratrooper, eyes slitted against the prop dust, standing beside the ostrich in a box. They both looked mightily pissed off.

That night I sat drinking warm Coke in the blacked-out international airport, crossing and uncrossing my fingers for the flight to Paris. In Paris, I ran through terminals to jump a flight to Nice. In Nice, I was picked up by a limo and driven to a villa on the tip of St Tropez. In the villa was my girlfriend. "Sit here in the garden," she said. "You must be hungry."

I sat and looked out over the chickens and the orchard and the vineyard and the great, cantilevered parapluie pines, down across the fields full of wildflowers and out to sea. I was still in the clothes I'd travelled in. My bush jacket stiff with Africa. My hair thick with Africa. My new beard smelling of Africa. And there were two soft-boiled eggs - and you know the rest.

It was all exactly as I'd imagined it, right down to the whisper of chicory in the coffee. It was one of those small moments of connectedness that have a monumental significance. It's difficult to explain, but I felt like time had been threaded through the eye of a needle. It was a moment when the fact lived up to the expectation.

That night I ate in one of my favourite restaurants in the world, the Auberge de la Mole in the hills above St Tropez. Rillettes and pâté, intense little cornichons. Delectable frogs' legs kicking in butter and garlic. A tournedos Rossini with a duvet of thick foie gras. Finely sliced waxy potatoes baked duck fat-crisp in a timbale. Perfect Roquefort and a sweet French snog of a dribbling crème brûlée. That's an almost perfect menu.

The next day we went along the coast to the Cap d'Antibes and a yacht moored off the Eden-Roc Hotel for Vanity Fair's Cannes film festival party. It was extreme. The distance between Chad and Antibes is about as radical as you could arrange in this world, and actually the combination was immensely invigorating. I rather thought that I'd suffer from whingeing culture shock and get all sulky about the conspicuous consumption and the vanity of Vanity Fair and Hollywood sur-la-mer. But, actually, I really adored it.

In previous years I've affected a blasé ennui, but a week in a desert refugee camp makes you realise nothing can be taken for granted, and the sin of luxury is not in the thing itself but in failing to appreciate it. That's not trite - well, it is trite, but it doesn't stop it being true. True extreme travel is not remote and dangerous places, but the juxtaposition of opposites.

I'm going to start doing binary shock holidays. Havana, then Reykjavik. Cairo, then South Georgia. The Vatican, then Easter Island. It doesn't even have to be expensive or difficult. You could work out an extreme binary day break, such as a lap-dancing lunch and then your mother-in-law's for dinner.

Read AA Gill's final column for Gourmet Traveller, published December 2016, here.


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