Yucatan, Mexico -- towering spikes of henequen agave pierce the blazing sky like surrealistic pine trees, cutting a trail through the citrus and scrub forest that blankets most of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula. I'm barrelling through the countryside near the colonial city of Mérida, mesmerized by the spiny plants best known for producing the tough, yellowish fibres used for making rope.
Once upon a time, 90 per cent of the rope and burlap bags produced in the world came from here, and huge henequen plantations, or haciendas, covered Yucatán. But the cactus-like plants squatting in today's fields like giant pincushions are just leftovers from the days when Yucatán was one of the richest states in Mexico.
I'm travelling with my friend Pedro Aké Suaste, a computer teacher and part-time folk dancer. We're heading to the tiny village of Sacapuc, where Pedro's father lives and grows henequen, sometimes called Yucatán sisal.
The story of henequen's demise, like that of so many other local enterprises, started with the chemical revolution and increasing globalization. There was a time when no country could launch a navy without henequen's waist-thick ships' cables, but after the second world war, synthetic rope replaced henequen in popularity.
For years, small-scale growers, or parcelarios, like Pedro's father have been struggling against the competition -- first from synthetics and now from large growers in Brazil and East Africa -- and vanishing subsidies. And now, just when there's new demand for eco-friendly henequen products in North America and Europe, Pemex, the national petroleum company, has discovered oil in Sacapuc.
But while many peasants have abandoned the land to work as labourers or serve tourists at the restored hacienda-hotels, the growing and processing of henequen still puts tortillas on the tables of a third of Yucatán's workforce.
Señor Juan Evangelista Aké Cen, a shy, compact man of 65 with lively Indian features, greets us at the entrance of the Desfribradora Adolfo Lopez Mateosm, a few kilometres outside Sacapuc, with a gift of sapotes, a purple fruit that tastes like candied pear. Run by a cooperative of local growers, the desfibradora is one of dozens of processing plants that extract the henequen fibre from harvested leaves.
With the invention of the steam-powered shredding machine in the 1880s, the henequen industry took off. Huge factories sprang up to process the "green gold," and sprawling henequen plantations gobbled up the peninsula, transforming the landscape from cattle and subsistence farming.
Today, production is down to 12 per cent of what it was, and Yucatán no longer exports raw henequen fibre, only manufactured goods -- mostly harvest baler twine, packing twine and carpets. The ball of coarse, hairy string you keep in your kitchen drawer and the scratchy sisal rug you recently bought are most likely made here.
Inside the narrow, open-sided processing shed, large shredding machines sit clogged with lime-green mulch that resembles KFC coleslaw. There's a gentle breeze, a sweet smell, and noisy, grackle-like cauices whistling from nests in the tin roof.
Henequen is "muy noble," a very noble plant, Señor Aké says, speaking in carefully enunciated Spanish for my benefit. The ancient Maya believed henequen was a gift from the gods and used it to make everything from hammocks and clothing to medicinal salves. Sacred places were built where women beat the fleshy leaves on rocks to separate the fibres.
It's almost noon, and the co-op has used up its supply of leaves and is shutting down for the day. As we squeeze through a gap in the chain-link gate, a family of black-and-fawn goats gallops past us to feed on fresh henequen salad, the tiny bells on their collars bouncing out a tinkling marimba tune.
Our bumpy arrival in Sacapuc is heralded by a crowd of children, dun-coloured dogs and squawking turkeys. Like other small villages in the area, it grew out of a thriving henequen hacienda and the massive, blackened chimney of the antique hacienda still dominates the vista.
The history of henequen is a history that Mexicans like Pedro's father, who considers himself mestizo -- a mix of Maya and Spanish -- are both proud and ashamed of. The haciendas grew so rich they minted their own currency, and the Spanish-descended plantation owners lived lives of privilege on the backs of Indian labour.
Standing under the words "labor omnia facit" -- "work makes all things" -- carved in the stone lintel above the old hacienda, it's easy to imagine the monstrous shredders and wildly spinning turbines of a century ago, when sweat-stained henequeneros straddled beams high in the cathedral ceiling.
We hike past the freshly painted, colonial-style municipal building and along a dusty, rutted road to Señor Aké's five-acre parcel of land. His fields are immaculately cared for. Henequen is a superior product -- "muy duro," he says, slicing off a spiny, wrist-thick leaf as tall as himself with his koa, a long knife with a sharp, hooked end. "Very strong." Not like nylon, which deteriorates in the heat. Only four or five leaves can be harvested at a time, he explains, and the plants, which live for 15 years, need six years to mature.
Back in the village, Señor Aké invites us for a meal, addressing me politely using the formal usted. The family home is a traditional, oval-shaped white bungalow built of rough stones plastered over with a mud-and-lime mixture and sporting a palm-thatch roof -- a design dating back to the stone temples at Chichen Itzá. I'm surprised by how wonderfully cool it is inside.
Pedro's sister Elizabeth has prepared a special treat in our honour -- delicious tacos of venison wrapped in warm corn tortillas. We eat sitting on folding chairs in the middle of the one large room, which converts to a bedroom by hanging hammocks.
When Pedro's father was born, Sacapuc was officially still a hacienda and the family tenant farmers. After land reforms enacted in 1937, the plantations were turned into ejidos, common land that was divided up and allocated to peasants like Pedro's grandfather. Henequen was returned to the Yucatecan people, and the crumbling workshops and palatial residences were abandoned to the jungle like the great Mayan cities before them.
Before we climb back into our stifling Bug, Senor Aké hands me a small handwoven basket of pink-dyed henequen. "Vaya con Dios" -- "Go with God"-- he calls out, waving, as we bounce over a thick rope speed bump and head south to the renovated Hacienda Hotel Temozón, where Pedro's dance troupe is performing for the tourists later tonight.