No one tells you about the physical beauty. No one tells you about the green mountains and the blue sea, the mist at dusk that lies at the base of the volcano, the open sky with puffs of clouds and the freshness of the air--sparkling fresh after the smog of Mexico City. No one tells you that El Salvador is a pretty place.

It looks like Martinique, which I have seen, or maybe Tahiti, which I have seen only in pictures. It has mountains, mountains rising quickly and suddenly from the sea, farms clinging to them almost to the point where the peaks push into the clouds. There is banana and sugar and corn and there is also, of course, the war. That is why I am here.

It is the explanation I think you have coming. I have come to this place because there is the likelihood that more Americans will be coming here. I have come because already a member of the American military has died here and because the president has declared this little patch of verdant beauty essential to our own security. You cannot call something essential and say you will not fight for it.

I am not sure what a typical war is like, but this cannot be one. Except for lots of soldiers at the airport and some stationed along the road, there seems to be little amiss here. Sure, there are armed soldiers guarding the hotel and there is even one stationed at the McDonald's, but after a very short time, they seem part of the scenery itself.

On the road from the airport, I try to remember what sort of vehicles are used by the death squads. I am reminded that they are AMC Cherokees, sturdy things that can take the extra weight of bullet-proofing. Whenever I see one with two or more men in it, I study them real hard, wondering if they are killers, wondering what sort of man goes out into the night to kill. I imagine they wear sunglasses even at night and I imagine further that Latin America would be a more peaceful place if sunglasses were banned and everyone had to look one another in the eye.

I have packed much advice for this trip. I am told to talk to the poor. I am told to talk to the rich. I am told to talk the military, but if that is not possible, to be sure to wave at them just to show that I am friendly. I am told not to travel more than 10 minutes on any road where there are no people and I am told, always and by everyone, to be careful.

Here, like everywhere else, the rich have taken the high ground. They have built their houses on the mountain and they have ringed them with walls and gates and, in some cases, barbed wire. One of the office buildings, reportedly owned by a very rich family, appears to have no windows at all. Like the homes, it is designed to be impregnable, although you have to wonder what is the sense of wealth that does not buy freedom--at least freedom of movement.

The American Embassy, too, is built like a bunker. It is surrounded by walls and there are pillboxes on the roof amd you are frisked when you go in. There are new security measures for embassy personnel. They are no longer supposed to jog on the streets. They are supposed to vary their restaurant habits. The memo of dos and don'ts is long, but the concluding warning is simple enough: "The threat to U.S. personnel is serious. Pay attention to this guidance, as your life may depend on it."

For the novice, Salvador is a melange of discordant scenes. Avis rents cars as it does anywhere else, but here the contract provides an exemption for damage caused by "terroristas." The lobster in the restaurants is wonderful, as good as everyone said, and so is the shrimp. But to get into the restaurant you have to pass a phalanx of children begging for money, which they pronounce "morning." They smile when they ask and they smile when you say no and they are waiting when you exit, asking once again and smiling, still smiling. Gods knows what they are thinking.

But first impressions are of beauty. First impressions are of palms and mountains and weather that is, at least in the highlands, warm, but not hot. The country looks like Martinique or Tahiti or perhaps, more and more, like Vietnam.