The portly innkeeper cast a critical eye over the grungy gringo standing before him. The visitor sported the usual garb of foreign wanderers who turn up from time to time in Jinotega, Nicaragua: blue jeans, knapsack, floppy hat and two days' growth on a pale dusty face.

Strangers, particularly from North America, are not common in Jinotega, but they are not unwelcome, either. Sometimes alone, sometimes in groups, they come because they know that to get a full sense of this scarred and bleeding Central American country the most poignant answers are often found in gritty places such as this.

Outside it was dusk and the pitted streets were teeming with 2,000 high-spirited teen-agers wearing the sweat-stained camouflage uniforms of elite Sandinista army units known as BLIs, Spanish initials for Irregular Warfare Battalions. This was to be their last night as soldiers after two years' service battling other Nicaraguan teen-agers, known as contras, in the rugged terrain that rings this dirt-poor hill town.

In other places, other armies, other wars, this might have been a night of mayhem. But not here, not now. These were disciplined soldiers of the Revolution, Los Cachorros de Sandino -- Sandino's Cubs.

Schooled as well politically as they were trained militarily, the troops' exuberance over their imminent return to civilian life would not transmute into rampage. This, they would tell you, was a people's army, not like those murdering dog Yanqui mercenaries in the mountains.

Nevertheless, lest revolutionary fervor fail, the authorities had banned the sale of spirits until the troop convoy was well on its way to Managua the following morning.

That left these youthful veterans to play basketball until dark on a concrete plaza, chat with giggling schoolgirls on street corners, sip weak coffee and Cokes (yes, Yanqui Cokes), munch cheap pastries, browse the local Marxist bookstore, watch karate movies at the town cinema and gaze with benign curiosity upon a strolling gringo in their midst.

Once in a while an anonymous voice from a knot of mottled green and brown clothing would jolt an Anglo interloper with precise Americanisms like "Hey, what's happenin'?" or "How's it goin', man?" After nearly a decade of revolution, they have managed only to loosen, not to cut, the ties that bind them to the colossus in the north.

One is constantly struck by the number of Nicaraguans, even many who serve in the Sandinista revolutionary government, who list such alma maters as George Washington, American, Georgetown and Notre Dame universities. Still more have family, friends or personal experience in cities like Miami, New York, Los Angeles and Washington.

American pop culture is pervasive, from major league baseball scores in the Sandinista Party daily to a Top 40 Managua radio station with the call sign "Stereo Revolucion."

Remarking on most Nicaraguans' seeming affinity for North Americans despite official U.S. support for the contra war effort, a friend who has lived long in Nicaragua once observed that Nicaraguans, above all, can separate a government from its people: "They remember Somoza did not speak for them."

But it is also true that most Americans who come here are not in the service of -- or even agreement with -- their own government. They come to show their solidarity with the leftist revolution, to build schools and clinics, to pick coffee beans. The Sandinistas welcome them, both for their moral support and their dollars. Political tourists or internacionalistas, they are most often called.

Now and then, one will hear a Nicaraguan not of the solidarity persuasion scornfully whisper, "Sandalistas." For them, U.S. policy represents hope for change, these meddling foreigners just more of the same.

On this summer evening in Jinotega, hotel rooms were at a premium, as many soldiers' families had journeyed here for the next day's elaborate demobilization ceremony. The room under discussion between the foreigner and the innkeeper was well-appointed by local standards.

It was painted a horrendous pastel pink and resembled a large beach cabana. All creaky wood that echoed the softest step, it measured about 5 feet wide by 12 feet deep. Its shape mandated the two wire-spring beds be positioned toe-to-toe, rather than the more customary side-by-side favored by leading hoteliers worldwide.

A hinged wooden shutter served as the sole window. Barely bigger than a legal pad, it had no screen and no glass. It did have its own tenant: a large black spider that grew bolder as the sky grew darker. For interior light, there was one bare fluorescent bulb. A single rickety wooden chair completed the furnishings. All told, the room put in mind the inside of a U-Haul truck. Call it Bed in a Box.

A communal toilet was down the stairs outside. Guests were to provide their own paper. Water would be turned on later in the evening and in the early morning. But you wouldn't want to drink it.

"Eight hundred cordobas," the innkeeper said.

A stiff price for your average Nicaraguan; 40 cents for me, I thought, calculating the unofficial exchange rate at the time. The law of supply and demand is not the law of this revolutionary land. He could easily have gotten a buck, if he'd tried.

"Agreed," I said.

I passed a pretty good night, by rural Central American standards. I was warm, dry and secure, with food and drink obtainable close by, a flush toilet and a cold morning shower at my disposal.

Until I sank into sleep, which was not long in coming, for travel in this part of the world is rigorous, I had only to brush away stray arthropods and tune out the pair of adenoidal Eastern Europeans in the adjacent suite.

You could do worse.

Most of my time spent traveling this region has been work, good work if you can get it. But on long stretches between one point and another the line between conscientious journalist and erstwhile tourist can blur. At times I have wished away deadlines and story counts to savor a moment, a scene, an encounter, a feeling unattainable anywhere else.

Once, returning from the breathtaking northern hills, I and some colleagues made a sharp left turn at an old burned-out Somoza National Guard tank. A few hundred yards down the dirt track, I suddenly found myself in a transplanted acre of Europe.

Selva Negra, it is called. Black Forest. And tucked away in the lush countryside between Jinotega and Matagalpa, it is as true to its name as Nicaragua will allow.

Dating back to prerevolutionary days, Selva Negra is what now passes for a resort in Nicaragua. The main building resembles an alpine lodge, replete with wall hangings evoking another continent in another time. Out back is a small pond. Scattered around the wooded grounds are rustic cabins.

Foreigners and Nicaraguans who have spent a weekend riding horses there or just reveling in the isolation and stunning scenery recall their stay fondly. But there can be too much of a good thing.

Some time before I encountered Selva Negra, a friend had sequestered himself there to get serious about writing his book. His plan had been to stay weeks. But one night not long after his arrival, after draining a bottle or two of the world's most seductive rum, Nicaraguan Fleur de Canåa, he found himself talking to trees, the only living companions of equal or greater size in his immediate vicinity. Idyllic solitude had soured, for him, into solitary confinement.

There being no phone service (whether there is no phone or it wasn't working, I don't know, though either is as likely as the other) to call his wife in Managua for rescue, he had hitchhiked back. We were stopping, as promised, to pick up a lamp and some other possessions he had left behind in his desperate, hung-over flight from paradise.

While his things were being gathered and stowed in the car, I wandered off alone. How out of place, I thought. How wonderfully out of place.

Though it is hardly an original thought, it is at moments like this that I find myself wondering why the most beautiful places on Earth are often the most difficult or even perilous to live (and sometimes to visit).

Despite the poverty and the violence of war, there is an appealing simplicity to Nicaragua, particularly to refugees from the often paralyzing overabundance of choices that mark the United States in the 1980s. Here, one's choices are limited.

Steak may be on the menu, but gristly ham may be what's in the kitchen. Want a Victoria beer? You might have to settle for a Tonåa. Taking the bus to Ocotal? Maybe tomorrow. Sure, okay.

Woe be to those who cannot adapt.

Once in a remote hamlet (more like an Old West way station), whose name I did not learn and which did not appear on the map, I entered what might be likened to a general store. There was the usual assortment of baked goods and trinkets, but what struck me was the contents of a large shelf.

From floor to ceiling, it was stocked with giant jars of mustard. Mustard enough to feed an army (a battalion of which was holding up traffic outside while reports of contras nearby were sifted). More mustard than a big-league stadium would need in a championship season. Mustard enough to double-line the Pan American Highway from Penas Blancas to Honduras. Mustard, mustard, mustard.

"We take what we can get," said the woman behind the counter with a shrug.

Ah, the joys of a centrally planned economy, particularly one on a war footing and embargoed by its traditional major trading partner to the north.

So much of life in the Third World is built simply around survival. There is a sharpened sense of the razor's edge. Regardless of political belief, one can only admire the courage of people for whom hardship is routine.

Some foods and other goods are rationed in Nicaragua. Lines are common, shortages still more so. Inflation leapfrogs when the Sandinistas periodically bow to reality. War is in the air. Yet life goes on.

Gasoline is rationed, but sells for a pittance compared to the world market. After one particularly annoying trip in which I had run out of ration coupons, though I had had money to buy gas -- which, it being early in the month, was available -- I naively asked a Sandinista economist, why don't you just scrap the coupons and hike the price? Let the market regulate supply and demand.

He looked at me quizzically, then smiled like an indulgent father to a child who had just asked him why the sky is blue.

"It is clear you don't understand our revolution," he said.

In that exchange, I understood.

Many Americans who visit Nicaragua do so under the auspices of groups such as Witness for Peace, a nondenominational U.S. church organization opposed to Reagan administration policy in Central America. For the uninitiated, particularly the non-Spanish-speaking, an escorted tour is probably the wisest way to visit Nicaragua at this time. This is, after all, a revolutionary society caught in the throes of war.

But these are not pleasure trips. They are long on politics (liberal to left) and short on amenities.

Simple foods such as beans and rice and the occasional chicken, are the norm for solidarity travelers. Managua does boast some decent restaurants for those so inclined. The prices -- at least for dollar-bearing visitors -- are almost sinful.

I once took five people to dinner at one of Managua's best restaurants. We all had drinks, steak or seafood entre'es, coffee and dessert. With tip, at the exchange rate in force at the time, the bill was $18. Total.

The only place I have found hot water is in the two big hotels, the gargantuan Mayan pyramid-style Intercontinental (which Howard Hughes and Robert Vesco once called home) and the flashier Camino Real on the outskirts of town.

The fabled "Intercon" has the added attraction of being a magnet for all manner of fatigue-clad commandants, visiting world revolutionaries, journalists, political activists, internacionalistas and assorted fellow travelers.

These two hotels and some government offices also seem to have the monopoly on air-conditioning.

Nicaragua is a land of stunning natural beauty -- mountains, plains, beaches,jungles, volcanoes (some active) -- and equally stunning human misery. Yet its people, despite generations of poverty and turmoil, are among the friendliest I have met on any of the five continents I have visited.

While there may come moments when sipping a beer under a thatched-roof beach hut at Pochomil brings to mind Jimmy Buffett, or awesome mountain vistas set you humming "The Sound of Music," make no mistake about a visit to present-day Nicaragua: It is not so much a vacation as a rigorous education, up close, sweaty and personal.

Even those who never venture outside Managua will find it hard going and still harder to believe this is a capital city of some 1 million people -- one-third the total population of this Iowa-sized land.

The most striking thing about first entering Managua is, where is it?

Much of the city, which is on the southern shore of Lake Managua on the western coastal plain, was destroyed by earthquake in 1972. Although millions of dollars in international relief poured in, the heart of the city was never rebuilt, partly because the late U.S.-backed dictator, President Anastasio Somoza, lined his pockets with it and partly because many people were simply afraid to rebuild on a fault line.

Thus, what was once a bustling downtown is now mostly open grassy fields and ruins in which the poorest of the poor dwell.

Over the years, the people and the buildings in which they live and work have radiated outward from the downtown lakefront. Streets abruptly bend and end in a maze of homes, stores and shantytown barrios, where refugees from war and rural poverty live under roofs of tin, behind walls of bare wooden planks and on floors of dirt.

One bright Sunday morning, I went to mass in a barrio chapel, actually just another hut, with two American priests and 20 or so women and children. As I stood outside after the service, watching grimy children play in ditches or haul water from the communal faucet, one of the churchgoers approached me.

With a wide, gap-toothed grin, she swung her arm majestically across the pathetic tableau and said in all sincerity, "Our barrio, it is beautiful, no?"

I felt my throat tighten and my eyes tingle.

"Yes," I said. "Very beautiful."

As hard as it may be for the modern North American mind to fathom, there are no addresses in Managua, at least addresses in the customary sense.

Streets rarely even have names, and house or building numbers are painted on curbs, doors and walls at the whim of the painter without any system whatsoever.

Directions are given first by reference point, some of which no longer exist. The most famous landmark in all Managua is "the little tree that used to be there."

From the long-departed tree, one might then be told to go so many yards or blocks toward the lake (north), the mountains (south), above (east) or below (west), then so many houses or buildings up or down, toward the mountains or the lake, and so on.

As cumbersome as it may seem, Managuans say this system works for them -- and that's just how addresses appear in the phone book.

Longtime foreign residents have a term to describe various aspects of life here, though it is not necessarily restricted to city limits. They call it "surreal Managua."

This can be liberally invoked (by tourists, too) for anything from watching a visiting Hollywood has-been stagger drunkenly around the Intercontinental lobby, to having a cow poke its head over a bush and into your face in an outdoor restaurant, to the almost obscene surfeit of consumer goods in the restricted-access Diplomatic (a k a Dollar) Store, to encountering on an barren hilltop in the war zone far from Managua a Middle Eastern "muralist" who insists in heavily accented English that he's really from Boston.

For all the Reagan administration rhetoric about "police state," I have never felt myself under surveillance (maybe I'm just not sharp enough, or important enough) or had my travel unduly restricted. Hotels' and foreigners' private phones, however, are simply assumed to be monitored.

Internal visas are needed to visit the Atlantic Coast, where Indians and English-speaking descendants of black laborers have given the Sandinistas one of their most nettlesome challenges.

Going north, one may be barred occasionally from areas where hostilities are thought imminent or in progress. "Conflictive areas," they are called. Ambushes and mines (avoid puddles, debris and shoulders) are of special concern on back mountain roads, as is sabotage. I once would have plunged my car over a recently dynamited bridge near Yali had my sharp-eyed companion not shouted a warning at the last moment.

To the south, along the Pacific coast, you'd hardly know there was a war on.

The well-paved Pan American Highway gently winds over rolling hills and through lush farmland and cattle ranches. Lake Nicaragua, reputed to be home to wayward sharks from the Atlantic via the Rio San Juan, bulges to within 12 miles of the Pacific near the delightfully funky bayside town of San Juan del Sur.

It was through here that 19th-century California Gold Rushers passed on their circuitous boat-and-carriage shortcut from New York to San Francisco. And, but for a last-minute change of heart by Teddy Roosevelt, it was here that the canal eventually built in Panama was planned.

One can still read the actual, flaking, century-old U.S. Army engineer surveys and blueprints in Managua's central bank library.

Just ask the clerk for them. Very informal.

Then let your mind ponder how different things might have been.

Mark J. Prendergast is senior correspondent for the Fort Lauderdale News/Sun-Sentinel. He was Latin American correspondent from 1985 to 1987.Ways & Means, Page E11.