I met Leroy for the first time in Switzerland at the open-air market in Oerlikon, under the viaduct. His colourful, exotic fruit and smoothie stand at the market’s entrance was an eye catching and radiant burst of colour in a grey zone and stood out like a Christmas tree in a graveyard. Under the granite stones of the arched viaduct, and the overcast grey skies, with people dressed in shades of grey and black, Leroy’s stand offered a burst of sunny colours. Mangos, papayas, pineapples, coconuts, bananas, starfruit and other tropical fruit were displayed in an open stand decorated with palm fronds and strings of chili peppers. The steady rhythms of Reggae music issued from this tropical island in the middle of Zürich and Leroy himself was as exotic as his produce. His sunny wide smile displayed a set of alabaster teeth in a face carved from ebony with Rasta hair tied in a colourful kerchief. His eyes were dark brown and friendly and I had the feeling that he was able to look right into me, like I was an open box with all my bits and follies spilling out. Tall and regal he represented Caribbean beauty and diversity in the midst of monochromatic Switzerland.
Having been to the Caribbean, I immediately gravitated to Leroy’s stand and we got talking in no time, in Swiss German to my surprise. When I asked him his name, he said Leroy, first and last name. As in Leroy, Leroy. ‘Blame my parents, the Leroy’s,’ He smiled. Like everything about the man, even his name brought a smile to my day. I had one of his divine mango smoothies and left with a pineapple and a papaya in my backpack.
I was visiting my sister and cousins and my time in Zürich was quickly coming to an end. I wanted my sister to see and meet Leroy and his exotic fruit stand and thus keep the connection open. My sis was so enthusiastic about Leroy and his smoothies and fruits, she ended up bringing all her friends to the market under the viaduct to meet the Caribbean Smoothie man. I said good-by to Leroy and promised to see him on his island in the coming winter.
And then came the covid-19 virus which turned the whole world into a waiting room, sort of like purgatory. Not quite hell, but definitely not heaven. Overnight borders closed and everybody was obliged to wear face masks, keep away from their loved ones and any other humanoid and stay home, waiting for the virus to either be banished with drugs vaccines and eventual herd immunity. Travelling came to a grinding, squeaking halt, grounding airlines which then stood in line for government handouts just like everybody else; from the local waitress to the distant travel-adventure provider. Cruise ships were docked or sold for scrap, bus tours and mass tourism cancelled. Worldwide.
We also had to learn new words and expressions like covid-19, social and physical distancing, aerosols, quarantine, bubbles, exposure, efficacy, rolling averages, herd immunity, PCR tests, spike proteins and a whole slew of conspiracy theories from a lab created virus to a complete hoax, from anti-vaxxers to covid deniers. And we all became hobby virologists, amateur infectious disease experts and google doctors. The daily conversation either contained a reference to the ex-president or the corona virus. As fast as the virus itself spread, the world wide web was even more saturated with facts, figures, statistics, predictions, solutions and failures. There were numerous government programs and handouts not seen since the Marshall Plan and an apparently bottomless well of money was flowing every which way into pockets, accounts and businesses countering all those who went broke, closed down or were laid off. Some new businesses mushroomed out of the contaminated economic environment like PPE suppliers, Netflix, Amazon, Zoom and UberEATS. All within one year, 2021 and counting.
The windward islands were side swiped by the global pandemic, the ensuing panic and policies, and were suddenly cut off from the world since flights were cancelled and ships were denied entry. Tourists were either stranded or herded back to their respective countries and the locals watched their incomes plummet and disappear and their governments hiding behind a shield of regurgitated science, religion and corruption. No help flowed from their coffers even though they were replenished with grants from the WHO, IMF and various governments like the Chinese. Nor were the islands immune to the pandemic and the virus stealthily found its invisible way into the population from the returning diaspora, the wayward tourists bringing it into resorts and then spreading it into the community. Covid-19 is a menace and the world had to adapt and learn on the fly and so did the island which did a decent job controlling the spread with lockdowns, testing and isolation.
Leroy retreated to a small uninhabited island and started planting corn, pumpkins, watermelons, palm and papaya trees, banana and plantains and scrounged building materials and water barrels, corrugated tin for a roof and pallets for tables and walls. He was a modern Robinson Crusoe, innovating and adapting to a new paradigm, one of self-sufficiency and isolation but with a smart phone and a motor boat.
Despite or because of discouraging travel advisories we were able to escape the dreary winter months and found ourselves in the sun, on the beach and away from the spreading virus in the north. There were some isolated outbreaks, mostly in luxury resorts and imported by careless tourists. The local health authorities were able to control the spread with strict entry protocols, tracing, testing and isolating those afflicted. Within a month there were no more cases on the island but also no tourists.
We were all excited to spend the day on Turtle Island, which we renamed Leroy’s Island, and after he picked us up in his boat and dropped us on the blinding white beach, we were treated to one of his legendary multi-course vegan lunches. Although having grown up with plenty of fish, lobster and conch, which the locals referred to as lambi, Leroy now eschews all animal proteins and instead lives on a diet of locally grown plants, roots, nuts and fruit. Tubers, corn, beans, lettuce, callaloo, squash, plantain, papaya, banana, almonds, water melon, seaweed, rice and tofu. Not being a vegan nor a vegetarian myself, I got to appreciate Leroy’s skills of turning out a mouth-watering array of dishes without tuna or lobster, without steak or chicken.
The island is a small outcropping; really part of a reef, about 2km long and 1km wide with a high point on the eastern end of about 100m. At the other end of the island sits the ruin of a circular stone silo, almost like a castle. This facility was once used for making quick lime or calcium oxide from burning sea shells. The bay where Leroy’s beach bar and shelter is on the leeward side of the island. There is a black shallow, swampy lake in the centre of the island and women in particular swear by its rejuvenating power and coat themselves in the black mud, making them look like some kind of prehistoric war tribe. The bay itself is home to a bale or a group of Hawksbill turtles which feed on the unique grass that grows on the sandy bottom. They are not afraid of snorkelers to our collective delight. We float above them and watch them graze unperturbed by our presence.
Predictably the conversation around the picnic table came around to the virus and with six of us at the table there were six versions and opinions. Who had the facts? All of us, of course. Sandy who was an old-timer in these islands was convinced it was a Chinese plan to take revenge on the USA. ‘Tell me how come that half a million dead in the US and practically no cases in China? It’s obvious.’
‘No, it’s just a case of too many people eating too many animals and raising them too close together with other species,’ was Ken’s opinion.
‘It’s the pharmaceuticals who created it and now they are getting filthy rich devising instant vaccines. It’s the perfect business plan.’ That was Carl who lives in New York city and spends most of his winters in these latitudes.
Everybody was right of course and Leroy just listened and smiled. ‘You know what Benjamin Franklin said about conspiracies? Three men can keep a secret if two of them are dead. That about sums it up. Conspiracy theories are just that: theories, nothing more.’ Leroy was smart. Not school smart but street, life and common-sense smart. He was well read and an autodidact in science, biology, nutrition and even languages. He spoke perfect Swiss German and a smattering of Latin idioms. ‘School here was the bible, the alphabet, discipline and sports. You either were fast, strong or smart enough to figure it out yourself. The lucky ones had educated parents who helped them. Nothing we learned in 8 years of school that I couldn’t have taught in a week on this island,’ he said.
We all agreed with Leroy and bemoaned the lack of proper schooling and pointed out that religion was a curse and a blessing. A curse because of its limited scope and rigid dogma and a blessing because it was part of the glue that bound people together. For a short time we forgot all about the virus, especially when Leroy served us his colourful and delicious six-course dinner. Tofu cubes that were cooked in soya sauce and tasted just like chicken, lentil stew, callaloo, plantains, squash flowers battered and fried, rice and beans, salad and for desert Leroy went and cut a watermelon from his patch.
Leroy has been a preservationist and advocate for sustainable reefs and ocean life. ‘Without the reefs, the fry, the young fish, have nowhere to hide and grow and are forced into open water where they are instantly gobbled up by larger fish. The reef is the nursery for young sea life and without a nursery there is very little chance of surviving. ‘
We all knew that Leroy was referring to the new port development which includes new docking facilities for larger ships, a five-acre paved and fenced parking lot, two warehouses, custom facilities and waiting rooms for the ferry. All built on backfilled land and dredged all around the solid concrete encased facility. This new venture was financed and built by the Chinese government, part of their belt-and-road initiative and cloaked in charity and economic help. ‘First, they convinced us that we need a harbour facility and since we couldn’t afford it lent us the money and then built it with all their own people, from architects to labourers, taking back all the loaned money. When it was all finished, they asked for us to pay back the loan. But since we spent their money on the massive build, instead of fixing up the old jetty for a fraction of the cost, we were now in their debt and will probably have to give them some land in lieu of the money owed. Also, they completely destroyed the existing reef just outside the mangrove lagoon, which is a favorite spawning-ground for numerous species of fish.‘
It was all true. Not only did they build a facility the small island did not really need; they put the local government into deep debt and in the process destroyed a valuable commodity, which was part of the local marine ecology, vital in sustaining future fish stock. None of that mattered to the neo-colonialists from the other side of the world, whose only interest is the future of their own people. It’s a pattern that is repeated all over these small island nations, from the South Pacific to the Caribbean. Leroy’s island is more than just a beach bar and a snorkel bay but a reserve for the turtles which are also being decimated by the environment as well as poachers. Leroy never lectured, he just hinted here and there, pointing out a fact or a change or weave the details into a story and then let us come to our own conclusions, which were all but obvious.
‘When I grew up, we exported coconut products and fruit, papaya, plantains, mangos and bread fruit. We had gardens and cultivated corn and all manner of lettuce and vegetables. We fished, and grew our own produce and fruit. We built sloops and smuggled contraband for income. We were practically self-sufficient. Nowadays we import everything from coconuts to sugar, which my ancestors cultivated for their white masters, some 200 years ago. We have become a dependent people, addicted to easy money, sent home by the diaspora from Brooklyn, Mississauga and London and we have become too lazy to plant our own produce. We are enslaved once again but not to whip yielding masters but to the IMF, the Chinese and our own self-serving politicians. To throw off the yoke of dependency we have to start small, with a garden maybe.’
Leroy was right of course. He just described what was wrong with the world at large. We’ve become so dependent on pre-packed convenience from groceries to entertainment, from perfectly planned holidays to exotic island getaways that we have for the most part lost our connection with the natural world. Even gardening requires bags of fertilizers and organic compounds from the supply store, along with peatmoss, pesticides and plant food which makes gardens not an economic choice but a hobby. Our tomatoes probably cost two dollars each by the time they’re ready to pick. Leroy, on the other hand works with the sandy soil, collects rain water for irrigation, dries and stores his own seeds and uses natural fertilizers like seaweed and compost and he trades sheep manure for coconuts with his neighbour. Sounds Idyllic but it’s necessary. There isn’t a nursery or garden centre anywhere nearby, nor does he have money to buy manure or garden soil. Which makes lunch on Leroy’s island so very special. He also made me realize that all mammals and probably fish as well have emotional and social needs just like us humans but the way we raise and produce meat and poultry, which we simply view as protein, is not much better than when we treated Africans as a commodity, the very slaves that Leroy descended from. Still, I probably will never be a vegan or even a vegetarian but I learned to appreciate the subtle lesson. Leroy never once told me what to not eat or drink, he just led by example, always with a big happy smile. No matter if he was showing the newly hatched turtles how to get to the water, because they were scuttling the wrong way, or if he was digging in a coconut with his machete, he did it gladly and with compassion for all living things. He truly believed that we are all connected by the force called life and that to be in harmony with all living things we would never be alone or lonely. Leroy was neither a prophet, nor a preacher, not a holy man nor a philosopher, but he was present, a genuine teacher with a focused presence, in tune with the natural world as his class room, equally at home in downtown Zürich or on Turtle Island. Of course, he was not perfect and the first to admit it. The ladies especially liked him; his easy going and uncomplicated manner, his love of the world and his healthy body and mind. He handled their adulation and attraction with grace but he was also just a man, not a hermit and he admitted to me that ‘them women always try to get me in trouble,’ with a twinkle in his eyes and his trademark smile.
We all escape our urban, regulated lives and jet into exotic exiles to experience, just for a short time, communion with nature, just to have something real to hold onto, as a fleeting mirage or memory when we go back to our structured and technology dependent existence. We sign up to our ‘zero-mile diet club’ or ‘true organic food co-op’ but we drive there in our gas guzzlers, call ahead with our smart phones, pay with credit card or apple-pay. It’s just what life’s reality is in our modern, hyper connected world, where everything is artificial and man-made, even the dirt in our gardens. That’s why lunch on Turtle Island with Chef Leroy was so special and yet so simple.
Laying in the hammock I watched Leroy, barefoot and clad in a tie-die T-shirt and lungi, his dreadlocks held back with a headband, cooking up a gourmet dinner on a grill made out of an old oil drum, an open fire and drift wood planks for a counter, under the shade of the swaying palm trees with reggae music playing on his blue tooth speakers. It was all so simple and civilised, comfortable and fun, without drugs or other stimulants. The world was in sync and we were the center of the universe for just that fleeting time.
What a brilliant story, Bruno, and wonderfully told.
Fantastic, Bruno. Kinda want to cry, thinking of our lovely Leroy.
Bruno, I love this window to a world that Leroy opened for you, and how you so sensitively and courageously placed your finger so directly on its pulse, you’re a star.
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A wonderful tribute to “Leroy” and his simple beautiful way of life.