Casa Na Bolom
For those of you who have read Out of Africa, Casa Na Bolom (House of the Jaguar) is perhaps Mexico’s equivalent of Karen Blixen’s Hog Ranch in Kenya. Like the Hog Ranch it was the refuge and outpost for two explorers who developed a love and reverence for the unfamiliar world to which they had traveled.
It was founded by Danish archeologist Frans Blom and his Swiss wife, photographer and conservationist, Trudi Duby Blom.
Frans Blom had originally come to Mexico in 1920 as a contractor for an oil company. While traveling to remote locations in the Mexican jungle he became interested in the Maya ruins. He started documenting these ruins and was contracted by the Mexican National Museum of Anthropology which financed some of his expeditions. Here he met archeologist Sylvanus G. Morley who brought him to Harvard University where here he took a Masters degree in Archeology.
In 1924 Blom discovered the Maya archeological site of Uaxacutan in Guatemala. In 1926 he was made head of Tulane’s newly established Department of Middle American Research. By 1938 Frans was forced to resign due to his heavy drinking. He returned to Mexico where he met and married the Swiss photographer Gertrude (Trudi) Duby.
Na Bolom was originally part of a seminary. By the time the couple had purchased it in 1951 it was long derelict. They restored it and took in paying guests so that they could finance their anthropological and archeological trips. Today Na Bolom promotes conservation, particularly in Chiapas, and preservation of the Lacandon culture.
As we passed through the doors of Na Bolom I immediately noticed the entrance way; the floor is made from liquor bottles embedded upside down in the ground. Further on, towards the courtyard I feel as though I am passing subtly through a time warp. The courtyard seems to draw its air from the wet of the Lacandon Jungle, and there is a capaciousness, as though there is an immensity of past waiting behind some door. You neither feel like you are in a museum nor hotel, which is, in part, what Na Bolom is today. Rather you feel very much like you have been invited to lunch and that any minute Fans and Trudi will be returning, muddy and smiling, from one of their expeditions.
Covering the walls of the home are photos shot by Trudi Blom, photos of Lacandones whom she befriended, photos of Frans’ expeditions, photos of the people of the pueblos surrounding San Cristobal, pueblos like Santiago and San Juan Chamula – the only town that has autonomous status within Mexico. Over some of the doorways are yellow jaguar masks carved of wood.
As we make our way around the courtyard, we stop in each room, looking at the cameras Trudi used to shoot her photos — old Roloflexes and Leicas — at her extensive jewelry collection of silver, at the maps made by Frans, and at the archeological artifacts Frans had collected and cataloged over the years.
In Frans Blom’s study we see his desk. It had been left unaltered since the time of his death in 1963 save for the fact that it has been covered by a glass case. On the desk is his typewriter, a heavy, gray REMIGTON, not Remington. In it is a sheaf of yellowed onion skin manuscript. There are his eyeglasses, tape wound around the center between the lenses to hold them together. There is a half-empty pack of Alas Cigarettes; and there is a bottle of Mezcal with about two good drinks left in it. The brand is El Cortijo and of all the possible towns in which it could have been made, it was made in Tlacolula. For a brief moment I have the urge to reach under the glass, grab the bottle of mezcal and throw back a swig right there.
Outside a dense, pelting rain starts though the sun still shines. We walk back out to the courtyard. On the other side, down a hallway, we come upon the photo for which we’d been searching. Though Yepes had done it justice, the central character in the photo, the man in the black cloak and hat, seems at once to be welcoming and defiant, both mocking and mirthful.
We walked to the front desk and asked if we could speak with someone regarding this particular photo and its history. We were soon greeted by Ramon who led us through the back gardens of Na Bolom.