I TOLD a friend that my wife and I were going to Guatemala. He said, "Oh," Then he said: "That's a very beautiful and a very troubled country. Some people say that it's just a question of time before they have their own revolution."

His voice is with me now as we sit at a sidewalk cafe in Guatemala City, feeling the fine chemistry of midday sun and beer. An urchin comes up the street, hovering in the shadows of the buildings. He is shoeless, ragged, unwashed. He settles behind us on the windowsill of the cafe. On the other side of the glass a fly buzzes, and the boy follows its course with his hand. The fly moves; the hand covers it. The fly moves again. Of course, the boy can never catch the fly.

He, in a sense, becomes a fly to us: incidental, harmless, hard to ignore. We have too many tortillas on our plate. The tortilla, a corn pancake, is a staple of the diet, of life here. I wrap our excess in a napkin, intending it for the boy when I can get his attention. Now, though, the waitress emerges and shoos him back up the block.

Across the street sits a building of white stone and black, opague glass. On its facade are these words: BANCO INDUSTRIAL. The building and its surroundings are lifeless, save for two National Guardsmen -- tawny young faces, starched khaki, dark metal guns -- sitting in the back of a pickup. I think of the boy hovering nearby, feeling the stab of hunger. You give a man a gun, a uniform, a meal. You give him, for the first time in his life, an identity.

I am thinking of this because the day before we got on a city bus. Get on a bus in Guatemala and you see the country. Like the tortilla, it is, a staple of life here. The fare is 5 cents. A year ago the government raised it to 10. The poor rioted and the government relented. On the bus, blood flows across the racial spectrum, from proud, dark, Indian faces to olive-skinned Spanish. In front of us sit a pair of Indian women. One wears a wool shawl of deep, nearly luminous purple. A clasp hammered from silver holds her jet-black hair.

The bus, with its hard-backed seats, transistor radio on the dash blaring and fringe across the top of the windshield swaying, jounces through dusty streets, turning at will, leading ever deeper into the maze of the slums. We turn yet another corner, and now jogging toward us comes a chanting pack of National Guard trainees, the dust rising from beneath their boots.

This vision of men in concert stirs the blood. There is the nationalist in all of us, the believer in the collective will, the common goal. But there is something deeper to this scene. As the men pass they offer a collective profile: high cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes, the scything curve of the nose. This is a visage that has transcended centuries. These could be Mayan warriors, descended from the people who built here in Central America -- without the wheel and the beast of burden -- a high, mysterious civilization.

Around that civilization, since overlaid by the heavy veneer of Spanish rule, is a mythic sort of imagery. Here is an example: a jaguar. This jaguar is of stone; water spatters from his mouth into a fountain at the center of a courtyard. Here in the highlands of Guatemala the jaguar has disappeared, retreating ahead of the machete clearing the hills for human need, retreating into the wooded cover of myth.

The lady of the house, a young American, asks if we would like a drink. Her liquor cabinet is full, but she complains of the high price brought on by government tariff. In Guatemala income taxes are negligible. The government raises revenue by taxing the rich's luxuries (liquor) and the poor's necessities (buses). My wife requests orange juice. The maid retreats, then returns with a long-handled tool with which she shakes oranges from the courtyard tree. A rain of oranges falls past the bougainvillea and down around the jaguar. Soon the juice appears.

The talk turns to politics. Our hostess says that 1980 will be a crucial year for the country. This may be the last chance for moderates to stand up and be counted. The political fabric is already strained by left and right doing their best to bump each other off.

The woman has lived here, in the city of Antigua, for seven years now. She does not work. Antigua is a gracious city full of ecclesiastical ruin. This was the Spanish colonial capital for all of Central America. They came here and built churches by the dozen. Over the years, earthquakes have leveled most. Life has been good, the woman continues, but last year there was Nicaragua, and now El Salvador -- falling like dominoes.The guerrillas see the countries of Central America as a single conquest to be made. The present right-wing government is corrupt, she says -- intolerably so. Recently oil was discovered in the northern jungle. The country's president now owns a lot of land up there. The woman dreads the day she buys her one-way ticket for Miami and leaves her house built around a courtyard behind.

"I'm Guatemalan," says the old woman stoutly. She came here as a child from Oklahoma.Her father was in lumber. There were no roads then; they traveled by horseback. Her husband left Washington state as a teenager to seek his fortune. He found it here in the hotel business. He also found her; they have been married 50 years.

"This is a beautiful country," he says wistfully. Big, shiny avocados fill the tree behind him. Behind that lie three soaring volcanoes and a jewel of a lake. There are only the four of us here at the hotel, which lies far down a rutted road, high above the lake. These people would like to retire here; after all, they own the hotel. But they fear for the future.

The days here dawn unfailingly still and clear. My wife and I wait for the sun to get up in the sky, then we climb down to the lake and swim in water as dark as emerald. By afternoon the wind has risen and roiled the lake. Clouds come in against the mountains. By dusk the air and water are still again. Stars begin to fill the sky; the nights grow cold.

Within this elemental rhythm people have lived for centuries. Twelve Indian villages ring the lake. Most have their own dialect. All have their own distinct pattern of dress. What unites them are the steep, volcanic slopes they farm: corn and beans to live, vegetables lately for cash. Now the land is running out. Diseases brought by the Spanish such as yellow fever and smallpox are now curable. They no longer thin the population. In Guatemala, where few people own much land, Indians leave the highlands to work, on lowland plantations. Others go to the cities.

In the afternoons my wife and I take long walks on the road which connects the lakeside towns. We are on our honeymoon. My eye seizes on timeless symbols, the sort that bind past with present, the sort that would appear on a shard of pottery. Here is one: a hoe swung by a man high on a hill. Here is another: a tumpline across a man's brow bearing a ponderous load of wood -- much like that across the brow of a Mayan god bearing a unit of time. And here is a third: a machete hacking at dead cornstalks. To us the machete seems mean, uncivilized; a weapon. But here it is a civilizing tool. Often on the road we pass men with machetes in their belts. They smile and say hello. I think of what the old man at the hotel had said once in passing: "These Indians are very gentle people. I can't believe the Spanish slaughtered so many of them."