Something bit me. In fact, lots of things were gnawing at me. Their chewing progressed up my leg to my back and face " and no, I wasn't dreaming. I leapt out of bed, grabbed a torch and surveyed the sheets. A column of ants was marching under the front door, over my bed and out into the garden. The only thing to do was to move to the hammock.
Yucatan's hammocks are as ubiquitous as its ants, even in luxury hacienda hotels. A hammock can be more comfortable than a bed anyway. And it hangs above the ants. I stretched out and closed my eyes, content that I had outsmarted the wee beasties. A minute later, the rope slipped and sent me crashing to the floor. The ants were all over me again. Another night in the tropics.
Alone in Yucatan, I was on a quest to find not insects but family. In the 19th century my great-grandfather, Francis Macari, sailed to Mexico's Caribbean peninsula from Lebanon. He fought in its wars and returned home to die. The relations who followed him to Yucatan, then a remote region unconnected by road to the rest of Mexico, stayed. They were the 'lost cousins' of whom my maternal grandmother spoke with great fondness and little knowledge. She called them the 'jute kings'. In Yucatan, they call jute " from which rope, twine and burlap bags were once made for the world's ships and farms " henequen or sisal, after the port from which the 'green gold' was shipped around the world.
I had flown from Mexico City to the walled town of Campeche, the seaside capital of Yucatan's south-west province, and checked into Hacienda Uayamon, an old colonial estate dating back to 1700, and now a luxury hotel. From here I was to begin my search. Yucatan is divided into three parts: Campeche, Yucatan province and Quintana Roo. My pilgrimage through sisal country would take me north to the provincial capital, Merida, the town that sisal built.
Perhaps if I found the 'lost cousins', they would help to fill in some of the blanks in the family history. My grandmother had told me that Francis Macari had fought in Mexico's revolutions. He was a soldier of fortune and son of a landowner with too many sons in a Christian village of north Lebanon called Ehden. He died defending the village in hand-to-hand combat with an Ottoman officer. An alluring tale, told to me often during my childhood in California. Perhaps this branch of the family knew whether the village's perennial feuding had sent Francis Macari and, later, their forebears to Mexico.
I was armed only with an e-mail address of a man named Eblen Macari in Mexico City. Eblen answered my e-mail: 'Almost all the Macaris from Mexico live in Yucatan. People in Merida are very regional. They hardly travel out of Yucatan.' He gave me the number in Merida of Jos Macari. There was no answer. Appeals to Eblen in Mexico City produced nothing. The Macaris, like the ancient Mayan cities and abandoned sisal haciendas, seemed forever lost.
I followed the henequen trail north in a battered hire car all the way to Merida. The route passed hundreds of old haciendas, where for more than a century sisal was grown, harvested, processed and made ready for sale. The hacienda was, like the plantations of the American South, a self-contained society and a way of life.
The hacendado dominated the caste pyramid, with his administrators below and his near-slave labourers at the base. Each hacienda consisted of the patron's casa grande, a smaller house for the foreman, workers' dormitories, chapel, factory for processing the stiff sisal leaves, a company store where the workers fell into debt, and a jail.
Most of the old haciendas stand empty. A few that still function have reverted to the cattle and corn-growing that preceded the 19th- century sisal boom. Others such as Haciendas Santa Rosa and Chichen have been turned into luxury hotels. It seemed fitting that as I searched for my jute king relatives I was staying in a handful of these renovated estates. …