People in New Orleans have a way of saying "Mamou," punctuating it with a significant nod. Clearly, the Cajun town carries deep meaning -- but it was a mystery to me.

I had not come to Louisiana for the usual reasons -- Mardi Gras, creole food, New Orleans jazz. I came to do research, packed my days with work -- and finally realized I was missing something. When a state legislator was telling me about his background and said, "On my mother's side, well, she's from Mamou," nodding meaningfully, I knew it was time to head northwest, into the heart of Cajun Country and the little town of Mamou, population 3,200.

Cajun Country extends south from Alexandria, at the state's center, to the Gulf of Mexico. The Cajuns, originally French peasants, were expelled from Nova Scotia by the English in the late 1700s and fled to Louisiana, then a French colony. You know you're entering the Cajun part of the state because on weekends the radio stations broadcast programs in French. As I drove, I tuned in a program of Cajun music called "Bonjour Louisiane."

This southern part of Louisiana is laced with swamps, bayous and small lakes, with much of the land at, or below, sea level. The watery passageways, the cypress trees and the dripping Spanish moss all contribute to what political essayist Neal Peirce described as Louisiana's atmosphere of mystery.

As I drove deeper into Cajun Country, the town names began to change to French: Bayou LaFourche, Plaisance, Lebeau, Broussard. About 140 miles northwest of New Orleans, I stopped in Grand Coteau, a town that I had read has many fine examples of 19th-century Cajun architecture, with steep roofs -- a necessity in this swamp country where eight inches of rain is the monthly average in summer -- and deep, columned porches. Walking the back streets, I lookeddiligently for the architecture style, but the disrepair all but obscured the houses' design,even though many bore plaques proclaiming them National Historic Landmarks.

By the time I arrived in Mamou it was late afternoon and a subtropical rain was falling. I stopped on the main street at a coffee shop -- a dimly lit room full of customers. Two old men sat on the leather stools at the counter drinking black coffee and speaking Cajun French. At one table two women ate huge oyster po'boy sandwiches, and at another, six elderly men and women finished up platters of fried seafood. I asked for a cup of coffee and a bowl of gumbo: a dark broth around a plump chicken leg and a generous hunk of savory boudin (blood sausage), with a mound of rice on the side.

Across the street was the reason most people come to Mamou: Fred's Lounge. For more than 20 years this bar and dance hall has had a Saturday morning program of live Cajun music that is broadcast on a local radio station. Aficionados come to Fred's from across the country and around the world to hear the music, dance to it and drink Falstaff beer. The crowd starts showing up at 8 a.m. and dances into the afternoon.

I ducked inside. Sadly, I was too late for the live bands, but the dance floor was still full of old and young, doing Cajun waltzes and two steps. I asked the bartender where I might hear live Cajun music and learned that Mamou's annual Cajun Music Festival was going on, just a few blocks away in the city park.

I arrived at the festival during a break between performances. The rain had driven away all but the locals, and the gathering had taken on the flavor of an ancient village ritual. People milled around, chattering in a mixture of Cajun French and English. Many of the children had abandoned their shoes altogether to slide through the mud. At long tables, servers were ladling out jambalaya and dispensing beer.

While the next musicians, Les Freres Michot, were setting up and the mid-afternoon boucherie -- a pig slaughter -- was cleaned up, the festival games began, all of them dating to the 16th and 17th century: the nail-driving contest, the greased-pole climbing, the guinea hen chase.

The crowd drifted to the center of the park and clustered around a pen for the guinea hen chase -- during which a child is given five minutes to capture the hen and take it to the referee. A dozen children had signed up for the honor.

First in line was a small towheaded boy of 3 or 4. The hen, already loose in the pen, took one look at him and scurried over to a deep puddle. The boy hesitated, then waded into the mud after her, but after a suspenseful five minutes he was lifted out, defeated, with tears in his eyes. Two girls went next, neither with much success. When they reached for the hen, she released a handful of feathers and scampered away, clucking smugly. The towheaded boy, wiping his eyes, asked to try again. This time he was victorious and brought the hen, clucking furiously, to the referee. The crowd applauded wildly -- and Les Freres Michot struck up a lively Cajun tune.

Les Freres Michot plays traditional Cajun instruments -- a fiddle, a triangle and a hand-held accordion -- along with a guitar and a double bass, making their music a little fuller than it would have been when it was first played 150 years ago. The melodies are haunting, with an underlying sadness in them but an irresistible tempo.

Suddenly the dance floor was full of couples, and a tall, lean man approached and asked me to dance. Despite my habitual confusion of left and right, I wanted to move to the music, so I nervously agreed.

My partner was a strong leader and we moved across the floor, couples surrounding us, swinging in a slow breeze. There was no past or future, just the time within the Cajun tune. Then the music ended and unexpectedly my partner twirled me around. I followed, for once not hesitating, or confusing my left and right.

He smiled and told me that I should come back to Mamou. The Freres Michot were putting away their instruments and a new band was warming up. Someone switched on the small white Christmas tree lights strung up around the park. It was almost dark. I took a last look at the dance floor. He was there, his arm around a new partner.

Alissa J. Rubin is a reporter for Congressional Quarterly.

GETTING THERE: Lafayette, about a three-hour drive northwest of New Orleans and an hour west of Baton Rouge via I-10, is a good base for exploring Cajun Country.

Delta and Northwest fly between Washington and Baton Rouge; Delta is currently quoting a $388 round-trip fare, with restrictions. Valujet, USAir, Northwest, American and United fly between Washington and New Orleans; Valujet is currently quoting a $196 round-trip fare, with restrictions.

WHERE TO STAY: Among the lodging possibilities in Lafayette and nearby:

T'Frere's House, 318-984-9347, a Victorian house with a gazebo; rates are $85 double, including a cocktail hour and breakfast.

A La Bonne Viellee Guest House, 318-937-5495, a mid-19th-century home in Abbeville (about eight miles from Lafayette); rates are $100 double a night.

Best Western Hotel Acadiana, 318-233-8120, $66 double a night.

New Iberia, about 20 miles south of Lafayette, also offers accommodations, among them Maison Marceline, 318-364-5922, a Victorian in the historic district; rates are $80 double per night.

WHERE TO EAT: Roadside food is almost always a treat in Louisiana -- it's hard to have a bad meal (or a small one) here. Every eatery has its own gumbo and po'boy recipes that are worth trying, and seafood is fresh and inexpensive.

Among the places to eat in and near Lafayette are Cafe Vermilionville (318-237-0100), a restored 18th-century plantation home that serves elegant and reasonably priced Creole cuisine; Charlie G's (318-981-0108), with New Orleans-style atmosphere and Creole specialties; Randol's (318-981-7080), a local favorite with highly seasoned food and live Cajun music and dancing; Prudhomme's Cajun Cafe (318-896- 7964), north of Lafayette in Carencro, with blackened fish, stuffed catfish and jalapeno bread; and Pouparts Bakery (318-232-7921), rated by some locals as the best bakery in Louisiana.

MUSIC: In addition to Fred's Lounge (318-468-5411) in Mamou, the area is chock full of clubs, bars and cafes with music. Among them are La Poussiere (318-332-1721) and Mulate's (800-422-2586) in Breaux Bridge and Prejean's (318-896-3247) and Randol's (see above) in Lafayette.

FESTIVALS: The annual Mamou Cajun Music Festival is scheduled for June 2 and 3 in 1995, with music, food and dancing. Admission is free. Other festivals include the Festival Acadiens in Lafayette Sept. 16-18, which celebrates Cajun food, music, crafts and arts; the Lafayette Festival International de Louisiane the last weekend in April, honoring French culture worldwide; and the Giant Omelette Festival of Abbeville, the first weekend in November.

INFORMATION: "Gumbo Ya-Ya: Folk Tales of Louisiana" (Pelican, 1987), written in the 1930s by the WPA Louisiana Writers Project, is a classic guide to Louisiana culture. For more information, contact the Louisiana Office of Tourism (P.O. Box 94291, Baton Rouge, La. 70804, 800-334-8626 or 800-504-7827) or the Chamber of Commerce of Lafayette (P.O. Box 51307, Lafayette, La. 70505, 318-233-2705).

-- Alissa J. Rubin