At night here far below the equator, the moon hangs upside down. Out beyond the railroad tracks the River Plate stretches broad and still as a flat gray sea. It is spring in Argentina, the parks are brilliant with lilac and new greenery and the warm dry wind blows in over the pampa.

From the 23rd story of a liveried hotel you can almost see the pampa, or at least imagine it, ocher-colored and vast, where the city stoops abruptly. If you have come from the North American west, you think of Las Vegas, or Houston, one of those improbable concrete cases in the midst of wild, bare land.

When the first light comes, the city rumbles, belly-deep underground with the subways that you feel beneath the soles of your feet, on narrow side streets where collectivos built like green and yellow schoolbuses roar along in haphazard caravans, windows open, nose to tailpipe.

Buildings rise up gray and shady, the colors of stone and 19th century Europe. Wrought iron balcony railings, thick-slatted shutters that roll like heavy windowshades; a shutter lifts. A pale blue dress stands briefly at the window: the maid.

The sun slants down over small square tables in the city cafes. The light is filtered, soft with cigarette smoke. You see a pair of women with sweet crescent rolls and their cafe con leche , face-to-face over one of the white tablecloths.They smile. They talk. They have the deep-cream features of the southern Mediterranean. They never seem to touch their coffee.

The men pass by in tight, quick-moving groups, dark-eyed, sleek-haired, impeccably dressed in muted suits of slate and brown.

Some narrow streets are blocked to autos and what the stranger hears at first is odd. The streets are bustling, filled with people, but there seems to be no noise. You hear low voices, muffled conversation. The men's shoes pat discreetly on the pavement.

On the taxi driver's radio a man is singing a tango. In the lyrics are a woman, betrayal. The driver hums gently, hurtles down a four-lane street, veers over into oncoming traffic to pass, lunges toward an intersection where a red Fiat that has never known a muffler is bearing down broadside. The Fiat brakes. The taxi brakes. A hand's width separates their bumpers. The taxi driver has not missed a beat of his tango.

The North American gets up to pay a breakfast bill and is corrected, politely, by the cashier. "You have given us 6,000 pesos," the cashier explains. "The bill is $16,000 pesos." The meal was coffee and scrambled eggs. By that day's exchange rate, $16,000 pesos equal $8.31.

The hotel laundry bill, with 24 percent service charge and 16 percent tax, comes to slightly over $65.85. The laundry was socks, underwear, and three shirts, one of which needed only ironing. Four days earlier, in a bank in San Francisco, a teller had counted out the Argentine pesos suitable for about three taxi rides between Buenos Aires and the airport. Astonished eyes widening, the teller counted out loud: "One hundred thousand, two hundred thousand . . . Two hundred seventy seven thousand pesos."

You lose track of zeros. You apologize, and count the money again. The Argentines find this mildly entertaining to watch. The economy has become a national obsession.

A projected inflation rate of around 90 percent is described by a government official as "reasonable." Along the shopping malls of Buenos Aires, the windows fairly bulge with the coffeemakers, toasters, blenders, silverware, wristwatches, televisions, fountain pens, electric lamps, and windup toys of other nation's factories. "Imported" the small signs cry, and the people crowd around the shops as though a trained animal act were about to commence inside.

Local business is staggering. Never in Argentine's modern history have imports been allowed to flood the nation like this.

Jose Alfredo Martinez de Hoz, the economics minister presiding over an unprecedented free-market policy, is the most controversial public figure in the country. You hear the Argentines wail, argue, grow passionate over the economy.

Of politics you hear scarcely anything at all.

A new president will be named within the next two weeks. The president is being selected by the three branches of the armed forces, in private meetings. It is assumed he will be Gen. Roberto Viola, former Army commander-in-chief and close associate of President Jorge Videla.

The announcement was supposed to be made yesterday, but it was postponed today. Today it was postponed until Oct. 9. No explanation accompanied the postponement.The junta wishes the public to understand that a slightly longer period of time is needed; the junta does not wish the public to know any further details.

It is illegal, in Argentina, to engage in political party activity. You can belong to certain parties, you can speak sometime on behalf of your party, and you can meet with your fellow party members, up to a point. The point seems to vary with the time. There are government officials who explain that Argentines are still perfectly free to express their politics, that the only thing they cannot do is hold unrestricted open meetings or vote for the people who govern them.

This is, officially, a temporary state of affairs. "Suspended" is the precise term. Political activity is supposed to return, but the nation is not yet prepared. The nation is undergoing transformation. The military junta assumed command four years ago of a country that by almost all accounts welcomed it in.

Now it is secure.

The city is calm.

In the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires' version of Lafayette Park ringed by fountains and giant palms and the sculpted pink facade of the principal government house, a dark-haired boy is laughing at the girl beside him. She has black curls held back by bright barrettes. She smiles. Her face disappears as he moves toward her mouth.

The Plaza de Mayo is where middle-aged men and women stand in large groups to request official information about the disappearance of their relatives. Disappearances, according to the groups that make it their business to tabulate such things, are "down." This means that this year fewer than two dozen people have left their homes one day, or been taken from them, and vanished without a trace.

This is viewed, comparatively, as a good thing. Many thousands -- the tabulated figures ran from 6,000 to 15,000 -- remain unaccounted for. During the first years of the "Process," they were taken from their homes or workplaces by force, usually by armed men driving cars with no license plates.

Some of those taken away were active in the revolutionary left, some were connected by political sympathy or mutual acquaintances. Some, including children and a number of pregnant women whose babies, if alive, have still not been located, apparently had no ties to the left at all.

Desaparecido is the Spanish word. After you have heard it often enough you begin to feel a little queasy. They did not say kidnaped, or tortured, or imprisoned without family notification, or murdered, all of which has been described in testimony collected by Amnesty International and the Organization of American States' International Commission on Human Rights.

They say, as though a crevice had opened and swallowed people and closed again, "disapeared."

Argentine officials cannot understand why outsiders, and especially North Americans, fed from the cradle with a particular notion of due process and the definition of individual liberty, keep bringing this up.

You were not here, they keep saying. You did not live through the mornings when we would not leave our houses because we did not know who would die from bombs, or rifle fire.

The outsiders -- and the sporadic low voices of dissent from inside Argentina -- speak of the dangers of something that has been described as "state terrorism," of the option of criminal trials for guerrillas who kill people with bombs.

"You have no experience," an Argentine official says heartedly, from the armchair in his office, "You will not have the chance. They will not give you the chance."

In the offices of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald, where editorials favor pluralistic democracy and an accounting of the people who disappeared and a society open to divergent ideas, the editor does not answer telephone calls because the death threats have been coming too frequently.

The government has given him police protection, so he stays. His predecessor received a written death threat -- from government security forces, the predecessor believes -- and left the country. Most reporters speak of self-censorship. Journalists were frequently among those disappeared and the last Argentine reporter to publish a lengthy blast at the government vanished shortly thereafter and has not been heard from since.

"The streets are safe," a young man says, leaning over a hotel counter with confidential good cheer. "You can walk at anytime at night." There are no bombs. Blossoms drift when the breeze picks up. A boy on a bicycle, straight black hair gritty with street dust, pedals down a broken cross street with a great slab of uncut, still-warm wheat rolls balanced on his wicker basket.

In the river delta country, where the grandsons of English immigrants sip little coffees on the cool patio of the rowing club, long wood launches churn the brown river water on Saturday afternoons. The launches stop at tiny piers along the banks and let the people climb out to their weekend homes. Here a couple, there an old man carrying tangerines. A woman joins you in a cafe. The cafe is crowded. She wishes to share your table. She apologizes.

You make conversation. She is a secretary. She asks questions: Have you found a suitable apartment? Do you like Buenos Aires? Are you married?

You start to talk of politics. She lowers her voice. She has a neighbor.

The neighbor's children disappeared. She glances to one side. She says she does not know who may be listening. "We are afraid, you understand ?" She is nearly whispering. "We live in a climate of terror."

You walk together from the cafe. She turns, quickly, to reach up and kiss your cheek, she walks away quite quickly, without looking back. It is suggested later that evening that she might have been a plant. By whom? No one knows. Just a thought, nagging late in the evening, curtains parted, city lit, and the thin white moon hanging upside down.