The hotel lobby is a zoo. Seedy-looking people 10 deep at the bar and 20 deep at the restaurant entrance. Greasy hair, filthy clothes, lots of noise and big smiles everywhere. It's the Hotel Camino Real, journalism center, San Salvador.

Famous evening-news faces hoist Cuba Libres with J-school students down to make names for themselves over the spring break. At its peak, the El Salvador press corps was 792 strong, by the government's count, far outnumbering the officials reporters want to interview, officials whose futures, not to mention lives, are at stake here.

Most of the reporters see their lives on the line in El Salvador as well. The daily risks are real, yet the hotel provides a different reality. The Camino Reality, journalists call it. For them, the war begins at dawn with the breakfast buffet, a little touch of home: fruit, cereal, ham and eggs if you like, refried beans if you don't. There is the ceremonial loading of the coolers with ice, beer and colas for the long ride ahead. Then, the day's first traffic jam--vans and taxis blocking the hotel entrance to load camera gear and correspondents.

The correspondents' war ends at dusk when everyone returns to the hotel, first to file stories and then to swap them. It's like returning to the States every day, an escape from the nasty, dusty reality of El Salvador. The hotel is a luxurious other nation, a patch of American culture, a sanctuary that reminds reporters where they come from.

"If we had to sleep in foxholes or some of those shacks every night, nobody would be here," said a TV technician.

"This isn't a war, it's a happening," said Peter Arnett, Pulitzer Prize winner with the Associated Press in Vietnam, now with Cable News Network. Vietnam, he said, was miles of paddy and silent jungle that soaked up battles, people and minds; El Salvador is so small that if all the reporters organized into a line-of-sight grid, they could cover almost every square inch of the place.

"The only one happy about all this," muttered President Jose Napoleon Duarte as he surveyed a crush before a press conference, "is the Hotel Camino Real."

I woke up this morning, had the Salvador Blues

'Cause I work in a business that's selling bang-bang news.

They pay me lotsa money, but never told me 'bout the dues.

We all heard a rumor, 'bout a battle out here (the liars).

We traveled all day and lost a windshield real clear.

If I don't shoot some shootin', it might end my career (such as it is).

--Ed McCarthy, ABC News tape editor

The correspondents have made dirt and sweat their badges of honor, and they are the heroes of their own tales.

Stryker McGuire of Newsweek and photographers John Hoagland of Newsweek and Don McCullin of the Sunday Times of London told of becoming a guerrilla ambulance service. Checking out battle reports at Puerto Parada, a town in the eastern province of Usulutan, they arrived just as the fighting ended.

The guerrillas holding the town had captured 10 soldiers, six of them badly wounded. Since the "muchachos" couldn't take care of them in their own jury-rigged hospitals, Hoagland offered to ferry the casualties to the military hospital. The offer was eagerly accepted, and the journalists drove six bleeding soldiers to safety.

El Salvador has it all: human dignity, dirt, suffering, blood, death.

The deaths of four Dutch journalists March 17, allegedly in a firefight but possibly in an ambush, wrought a great transformation in the press corps. The best word for what happened is panic.

"I think I can get the company to bring in a 737 that could take all of us out of here," one TV type confided at the bar. All Dutch journalists fled the country, abandoning a story that really meant something to Dutch readers. Reporters besieged the U.S. Embassy and tied up telephone lines calling congressmen in Washington to seek official protests and protection. Duarte came to the hotel to ask the reporters how he could help.

"It was disgraceful. These guys thought they were invisible because they aren't from Salvador. It was just a game to them. If you cover a war, death is something you have to live with," a correspondent who has covered decades of international violence said of colleagues here.

The boys in the hotel, on the New York line,

Keep telling their producers that everything is fine.

If I step on a Claymore they're gonna miss their deadline.

I asked a muchacho, any Cubans 'round here?

If you help me find one, I know it'll help my career.

Hey! I was only kidding! Please don't shoot off my rear.

--Ed McCarthy

In the face of the daily risks, journalists create a separate reality in which it is ordinary to debate evidence of massacre and the extent of corpses' decay over breakfast. New York free lance Paul Hoeffel said he felt no reaction after seeing his first pile of dead bodies at the El Playon dump, but that he vomited for no apparent reason five hours later.

"If you reacted in a normal manner at the time, you wouldn't be able to do the job, so you don't react," he said. Like soldiers coming home from war, correspondents here relate being unable to talk about El Salvador with people in the States. "Either they overreact in horror or they change the subject," said Cindy Karp, a UPI photographer.

Juan Tamayo of UPI is one of 35 journalists whose names appeared on a mysterious death list allegedly put out by a right-wing death squad. His home-town newspaper wrote the story in such a way that friends began calling his parents to express sympathy over the loss of their son. But in El Salvador, the 35 are a special group, with T-shirts bearing a blue-and-white bull's-eye in front and, in football-team style, the wearer's number on the death list printed on the back.

Journalists also have taken to comparing their bulletproof flak jackets, judging them on weight, fit and how much sweat they produce. Covered in nylon and washable "only in Woolite or a fine shampoo," the labels say, the vests are almost unbearable in the hot, dusty countryside.

Those who have them wear them anyway, even though nobody knows of any incident in which they have come in handy.

Last night I got back early, so I went on the make.

Met a sweet working lady, a hundred goo-goos at a take.

So we moved into my room, but I couldn't stay awake.

--Ed McCarthy

"Sex," said one newspaper writer, "has become an abstract concept." Long days and constant deadlines have worn everybody out. For a hotel with so many journalists, the pool is eerily empty and hallways are quiet by midnight. As another reporter puts it, "It's a NATO scene: No Action, Talk Only."

Still . . .

Two writers for one organization had an affair, irritating colleagues who occasionally could not get into their shared rooms. Two German TV reporters amazed everybody by repeatedly bringing their prostitutes down to breakfast.

Beth Nissen of Newsweek said she had returned to her room late one night last year to find "a reporter, who shall remain nameless" lying naked in her bed. He had persuaded the hotel maid to let him in, but had made the mistake of piling his clothes neatly. "I grabbed them and there was this shower of clothes out into the hallway, followed shortly by the reporter," Nissen related.

The only way to deal with the tension, she said, "is to hug everybody a little. Just a hug."

Jack Smith of ABC News said he had been flirting madly with a Salvadoran woman employed to help out in his office suite when one day she suddenly said that the late Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero was not, as Smith had been reporting, a great humanitarian beloved by his people, but rather a communist subversive.

"I asked her where she got that idea, and she said, 'Well, he was always talking about the poor,' " Smith said. "After that she kind of lost her appeal."

Politics, of course, is the major story here. On election day, March 28, with the press corps swollen to its peak and correspondents accustomed to working entire continents alone having to divide one story with colleagues, few Salvadoran voters, it seemed, did not at least see, if not speak to, a member of the international press. Reporters covered as much ground as possible during the day, and stayed up until the small hours trying to make sense of early returns. Few reporters got to bed before 3 a.m.

At 5:30 a.m. all were awakened by gunfire around the hotel. I pulled on some clothes and flung open the door of my top-floor room just as men with submachine guns poured out of the elevator in front of me. It was only the regular bodyguard detachment for former Army Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson, whose right-wing party had done very well in the elections. He had arrived to appear on the morning network news shows.

So had U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton, who had warned the country that to put D'Aubuisson in office would be to lose all U.S. aid. The networks had set up on the hotel roof, with a dawn-lit volcano glowing photogenically in the background as bullets whined in the hills nearby. The crush of reporters following the notables onto the roof made it hard for them to avoid running into each other in their tour from "Good Morning America" to "Morning News" to "Today."

The networks also were hard-put to avoid showing their opposition's correspondents, while they roundly cursed the print reporters who were trying to listen to what was going on. By 7 a.m., everyone had finished two important interviews and a gunfight item.

All this makes it understandable that the regular Salvador Press Corps Association (SPCA) T-shirts, with their exploding volcanoes on the front and the words "Journalist! Don't Shoot!" in Spanish on the back, have been updated. They now read "I Survived the '82 Elections."