IN THE HOUSE OF THE JAGUAR In San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico, a guest house promotes Mayan culture

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SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico -- At the end of a narrow, cobblestone street in San Cristobal de Las Casas, hopes for an ancient Mexican people and their home in the rain forest reside in the house of a jaguar.

It is an enchanting place, full of hospitality, purpose and character, a walled community where tourists can find a gentle solitude or mix in with a cadre of crusaders for jungle culture, or perhaps some indiginos staying overnight while on a visit to town.
 
For almost half a century, Na-Bolom -- house of the jaguar in the language of the Tzotils, one of the indigenous peoples of Mayan heritage who populate the highlands -- has been a guardian of Indian culture, a protector and planter of the rain forest, a center for preservation of Mayan heritage and still more.

It seems funny, now, to recall that the day I arrived well after midnight, tired from a 12-hour drive and chilled by the brisk mountain air, I thought it was just a hotel.

If it were only that, it would be enough. From the moment my friend Annie and I stepped through the rough wooden portal into the first of Na-Bolom's four courtyards, it felt special, like a spiritual place unlike anywhere I had stayed before. Juan, the overnight man, welcomed us warmly and, after mulling it over a moment, chose and led us to the Huistan suite.

It was welcoming at first sight, not luxurious but rich, and comfortable. Photographs that we later learned were the work of Na-Bolom's co-founder, Gertrude Duby Blom, graced the white stone walls, as did textiles and earthenware of local style. Best of all, in a corner across the room was a small stone firebox built into the wall, cleaned and stacked and ready to burn. In but a few moments, the chill was gone, and we were cozy within our sanctuary.

The room, like all but one of Na-Bolom's 15 guest rooms, is named for a local village. The practice seemed quaint, if superficial, until near the end of our visit, when I learned that the photos, fabrics and other decorations in the room all had come from Huistan, just south on the road to Ocasingo. It shouldn't have surprised me, though, because there is nothing superficial about this place.

In the morning light, we began to see the depth of our find, beginning with breakfast at the long sweeping table for two dozen in the dining room. We sat with the four or five others already there and began munching on bread baked in the adjacent kitchen.

Like the guest quarters and the courtyards and practically every room in the compound, the dining room is filled with carvings and tapestries and artifacts. At the head of the room are several jaguars, in porcelain and wood, and suspended from the ceiling at the other end is a dragon of cloth and wood, made and donated by a former Chinese artist in residence. Lining the walls in between are carvings of lions and monkeys.

After breakfast, we proceeded across the main courtyard, a spacious square framed by columns and archways. Beyond them, under cover, the walls are painted yellow and further covered by scores more artifacts and displays.

Along one wall, just underneath a series of photos of present-day San Cristobal, with emphasis on the Zapatista guerrillas who began their uprising about eight blocks away at New Year's in 1994, there is a 25-foot canoe, hewn from a single tree trunk.

On each wall are some of Na-Bolom's wrought-iron crosses, which typify the zeal of Blom and her husband, Frans Blom, to preserve all things local. The crosses once adorned practically every house in town, but when the government ordered their removal around the time of the 1910 revolution, they were relegated to basements. In the early '50s, when the Bloms moved into town, the crosses were being sold for scrap, so they put out the word that they would buy any and all of them.

The courtyard is lush with plant life that is yet another legacy of Trudi, who presided over Na-Bolom with Frans until his death in 1963, and then alone until her death at Christmas 1993 at age 92. Many of the plants, with their flowers of yellow and purple and red and white, are planted in earthenware. The larger specimens rise from the earth, where the flagstone has been removed -- or never was -- to allow them to flourish. The grandest of these, a bougainvillea, rises above roof level.

On the other side of the yard, we encountered Yosefa Ugav, an Israeli native who today supervises Na-Bolom's endeavors. She welcomed us and filled us in:

There were tours of the compound each afternoon; we were welcome to attend.

There were tours of the countryside and the Indian village of Chamula leaving from where we stood each morning at 10. All we had to do was show up, and a guide, Pepe, would lead on.

We could eat as many of our meals there as we chose. We just had to let them know we were coming, so they would know how many to cook for. In the meantime, there was always coffee in the kitchen; we could help ourselves. Oh, by the way, she said, we grow all our own vegetables for the table in a portion of the gardens out back; if we felt like getting our hands dirty, we could help out. And if not, the gardens were a great place just to visit, she said.

There was a room built as a chapel that contained a 1920 Steinway; we were welcome to play if we wanted. (Later, on the tour, we saw that this room also houses a collection of 17th- and 18th-century religious paintings and icons, and learned that they had been gathered in much the same circumstances as the crosses.)

There was the library, with thousands of titles about the region -- including a two-volume work on the Lacandon jungle written jointly by Frans and Trudi, his two scholarly works and her books of photographs of the Indian peoples of Chiapas -- and we could look around if we wanted. There was the Lacondon museum, and a gift shop,too, she said.

As we left her office and headed into San Cristobal, Annie and I were almost giddy over the gem we had found.

When Frans and Trudi met on an airstrip in 1943, before one of his expeditions into the Lacondon jungle, both had already led illustrious lives.

He was born in Copenhagen in 1893 and had come to Mexico in 1919 as a member of a team mapping the jungle and looking for oil. His work soon brought him to the Mayan ruins at Palenque, which had been the center of Mayan culture before they were abandoned before the first millennium; they were now hidden by the intense growth of the forest. Soon he was working there on digs under government auspices. He was so taken by the place, and the work, that when he left, it was only to attend Harvard, where he earned a degree in archeology, and then returned.

Trudi, born in Switzerland in 1901, studied social work and horticulture there, but when her interests turned to reporting on the socialist movement in Europe in the '30s, she was arrested by Mussolini. In the '40s, after she got out, she immigrated to Mexico, where she began reporting on the plight of women working in Mexico City's textile industry. It was during that time that she developed her photography skills, to document conditions in the shops.

By the time of her death, she had taken more than 55,000 photographs, the vast majority of them focusing on Indian life, particularly among the Lacandons, whose survival became the Bloms' crusade. Her unique relationship with them over almost a half-centur allowed her to record the breadth of life in the jungle, including religious rituals that few Westerners have ever observed.

The Lacandons are considered to be the most direct descendants of the Mayans, because they were never conquered by the Spanish invaders of the 16th century. They consider themselves the hack winik, the true people of the jungle. They hold that when the trees of their forest are gone, the sky will fall in, and that when their people die out, the world will end.

Both prospects remain, despite the Bloms' efforts and successes. Only about 80 tribesmen were left when the Bloms encountered them in the '40s; now the census stands about 300, and is rising. But even while their numbers are growing, their ways are receding into the past: Where the Lacandons once hunted with wooden bows and arrows, many now use rifles and drive pickup trucks.

These changes are symptoms of a grave concern that led Trudi and Lacandon elder Chun K'in Viejo to conceive what is now one of Na-Bolom's principle endeavors, a cultural education center in Lacanja, one of the three main Lacandon villages remaining. When construction is complete in fall, it will be open to tourists, but its greater mission will be to educate young tribe members to keep alive their language and culture.

In its one-room museum, Na-Bolom also promotes the Lacandon culture, highlighting its religion, musical instruments, textiles, art and hunting and cooking practices. It also sells Lacandon crafts in the gift shop, and uses the proceeds to support its work in the jungle.

The couple worked not only for the survival of the Lacandons but for the rain forest in which they live. Today, its preservation is Na-Bolom's other main endeavor. In addition to its gardens on site, it operates an organic agriculture education station and tree nursery about five minutes' walk away. It sponsors tree-planting expeditions into the jungle and is working with the Lacandons on a tree nursery of their own.

Last year, their joint efforts led to 55,000 trees' being planted, a great number but a small advance, considering that 85 percent of the forest has been lost to development.

Frans' and Trudi's work in the rain forest was foreshadowed by their work on the grounds at Na-Bolom. They had married soon after their airstrip rendezvous, but lived in Mexico City for seven years before they bought their house in 1950. The building, built in 1893 for eventual use as a monastery, had been all but abandoned; it is said that cows came in from the street to eat the wild grass growing not only in the gardens but throughout.

Trudi put her horticultural knowledge to work, not only in the extensive gardens out back and in the main courtyard but in two other courtyards as well. Today, one is all but given over to agriculture, and the other shares it with a huge colorful mural that was the work of another former artist in residence.

A third visiting artist's work stands a bit beyond, at the entrance to the garden. It depicts two sides of the artist Diego Rivera: On one side is his youth; the other depicts his exuberance as an adult, flanked by bawdy women.

Rivera was a friend of Frans who apparently visited frequently. The garden's many pathways are lined with hundreds of empty wine bottles, planted upside down. Although the rule of the house barred alcohol, it is said that the bottles, which also are embedded in cement at the compound's front entrance, are the remains of the many parties that Frans, Rivera and friends had.

The gardens out back are also home to staff quarters and a second guesthouse, and to a tiny mud-walled hut typical of Chamula, the nearby village that Pepe takes tours to. Visiting Chamulos use it as a shrine; it is decorated with the green crosses of Chamula, the colored candles Chamulos use in their worship, and the greenery formed into an arch over the altar that to them symbolizes the rainbow.

The Chamulos who do visit stay for free, as do members of the region's other indigenous peoples. This is possibly why for tourists Na-Bolom is one of the pricier places to stay in all San Cristobal.

That first morning at breakfast, we shared the table with a high school teacher from Montreal on sabbatical, who had attended the tour the night before and returned for breakfast. He expressed surprise when he learned we were staying there because he thought it was so expensive.

Annie and I looked at each other quizzically; $30 per night is expensive? For this palace?

As it turned out, it is, in a sense, since he was paying less than $10 for his place closer to the town square, a price explained partly by the terribly lopsided dollar-peso exchange rate and partly by the local economy, which has suffered from a loss of tourism since the Zapatista rebellion.

But we had just paid almost $40 a night for a noisy place directly on the city square in Oaxaca, and we had thought that was a decent price, given our norteamericano frame of reference.

We agreed later that if we had known it was considered expensive, we might not have gone there, but now that we had, we weren't leaving before we absolutely had to.

SIDEBAR:

IF YOU GO . . .

Getting there: The nearest airport to San Cristobal de Las Casas is in Tuxtla Gutierrez, which supplanted San Cristobal as capital of Chiapas state in 1892. From there, it is about a two-hour, first-class bus ride into the highlands that costs less than $5.

Being there: Evidence of the peasant rebellion that began at New Year's 1994 remains in more than a few ways, from the campesino encampment on the plaza of San Cristobal's cathedral to the sale of Subcommandante Marcos hats and key chains by sidewalk buskers. But not only has the US government not issued any sort of travelers' warnings to avoid the area, San Cristobal imparts an air of safety and hospitality.

San Cristobal is about 7,000 feet above sea level, and it is therefore cooler than many Mexican destinations. Come prepared with a sweater for the evenings.

What to see: For an overnight trip, consider Palenque, four to five hours away by bus to what are considered the best Mayan ruins. There are a dozen massive stone shrines and other buildings that had been swallowed by the jungle until rediscovered in the '20s by Frans Blom and others. A half-day there is sufficient, and there is nothing worth seeing in town.

An all-but-required stop along the way is Agua Azul, a wondrous collection of waterfalls with pools of cool blue water at their bases that are perfect for swimming. Hiking trails beside the falls go well into the hills, along which you'll find huts where you can rent hammocks for $1 or $2 a night.

This oasis is a popular spot with Mexicans as well as tourists, so expect to have plenty of company -- and to have more than enough opportunities to buy T-shirts and tourist kitsch. Prepared food is also available.

For day trips, in addition to San Juan Chamula, other villages are nearby.