When Rayburn Ebanks, 73, speaks of the old days, he talks of a Cayman when a day’s pay of five shillings could more than feed a family and a donkey cart was the mode of transportation.
“Physically, my ancestors had a much harder life,” he said. “However, I think that emotionally, spiritually and mentally life today has to be harder with the standard of living so high. What I could carry home in a land basket for a shilling those days, $100 won’t do it today.”
From as early as 6am, Mr. Ebanks takes to the road from West Bay, walking mostly everywhere he goes collecting produce he sells along the roadside. He has a mortgage and a family to feed and bills to pay.
The scale is homemade with a cut out plastic bottle to weigh produce. On a clothes line, pegs of ripe plantains and bags of seasoning and Scotch bonnet peppers hang; a coconut, a breadfruit, a bottle of soda, pumpkins and a slice of watermelon sits on a makeshift table. A grill with no coals in sight will simmer throughout the day sending off plumes of smoke from roasting corns.
Just next door, the bigger supermarkets are his competition. His days earnings are sometimes less than $3 and from that he takes the bus home. “Cayman is like that right now,” he said.
On a good day, Mr. Ebanks sells about $30 worth of goods. “I don’t expect blood out of stone, so I feel no way; I only thank God that I make it back home safely. It is not much one can do but grin and bear it, it like that right now,” he said. “Never thought I would see Cayman become so rich and people struggling to make ends meet. At least when we were poor there was nothing.”
Mr. Ebanks carefully sets his knife aside and collects his thoughts. “I’ve been gardening all my life,” he begins with a gentle smile. “I grew up in West Bay, from time I was a little I would buy and sell. I walked from Boatswain Bay into West Bay with baskets of sand and breadfruit for sale. Those days it was nothing much doing in Cayman for men returning from sea, so we did what we had to do to survive. What was gained from selling a basket of breadfruit and 8 to 9 basket loads of sand could help feed the family for the week, it not like that today.”
Mr. Ebanks also recalls collecting fish from the fishermen to sell. “I would walk all over West Bay to sell the fish. The teacher asked me one day why I was always late for school in the mornings,” he said. “When she found out it was so I could have sometime to eat, she did not question why I was late anymore.”
A seaman by birth, Mr. Ebanks found work with the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service in younger days, but said it created too many enemies so he returned to ship life.
“Those days were superior to today’s condition,” Mr. Ebanks said. “If you made five shillings pulling bush or mixing cement that was a day’s work. That five shillings, with produce from the land and fish from the sea could more that do. There was no electric or water bills to pay. We had good clean cistern or well water fresh from the earth and sky, the lamp just needed kerosene; people lived on what they had each day and there was no talk of people dying at an early age.”
In the Cayman today, life has become tremendously busy and people don’t have time for relaxing and enjoying each other’s company anymore, he said. Earlier, life was quiet and simple with no sense of urgency and Caymanians were happy as the desire was not for things but for survival.
According to Mr. Ebanks, television, computers, domestic and work politics have made the simple pleasures of planting a garden, catching a fish or collecting plantain trash seem so much farther away. “We were poor, but we were happy,” he said.
“There are people struggling to get by in Cayman today. I’m not talking about those who don’t want to work or are lazy; but good honest Caymanians who know how to put in a hard day’s work,” he added. “I’m talking about people who work hard every day and strive to improve themselves and their situation. I know it is rough right now for everyone but there are people who need to eat.”
Originally, Mr. Ebanks sold produce along the airport fence but I was told to move. Today, he sells at the cricket pitch but business is not as good.
“The customers do not come this way and sometimes I return home without even selling one single thing,” he said. “It’s hard.”