A traveler arriving from El Salvador and Nicaragua finds a country that pines to be left alone to tend to its already heavy cares. Honduras, however, is getting caught up at the rim of the Central America whirlpool. Its resources, temperament and governing style are painfully inadequate for the imperatives of crisis. The situation is far from hopeless, but it's unfair and sad.

The distinctive thing about Honduras is that although it's terribly poor, it's really not unjust. Two-thirds of the people who use the land own it or have land-use rights; the 12,000 "large" holdings average 120 acres. Its unions are no patsies, and it has at least one newspaper, El Tiempo, that uses the country's considerable press freedom boldly. The military, for which there is no ugly oligarchy to serve as a brutal gendarme, yielded formal power gracefully last year to elected civilians. The defense budget is half the education budget. People speak well of United Fruit. I met the powers that be in a two-day spin and admired their spunk.

Too bad Honduras isn't an island. It could devote itself, as everybody I talked with craved to do, to working on the economy and maintaining the political stability that is its current pride. Unfortunately, Honduras borders on Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. "We are the sandwich," the minister of the presidency soulfully said to me. Thus is Honduras being forced to address two unfamiliar questions: what is the foreign, military or communist threat? And what is the proper response?

Except, of course, that events are not allowing an orderly approach in sequence to those two questions. Events are making Honduras respond to the threat before it has reached a national consensus on just what it is.

In a place like this, the principal action agency is the military. It operates by a rough secret democratic centralism within its top ranks, and it can focus on certain things. By contrast, the civilians have the democracy without the centralism and tend to blur.

A small example: the chief of the armed forces, who trained in Argentina and Peru, told me he'd heard the Sandinista radio challenging the award of certain once-Nicaraguan territory to Honduras early in the century, and it alarmed him. The foreign minister, a careful man who worked until recently for the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, had not heard of the Sandinista claim at all.

A big example: refugees flow in from El Salvador and Nicaragua--the current count is 20,000. The civilians enunciate a policy: grant hospitality and avoid border frictions by moving refugees away from the immediate border areas.

The armed forces, however, conduct the policy. On the El Salvador side they are known to pluck suspected guerrillas from the camps for handing over to the Salvadoran armed forces, and to harass and even shoot at refugees believed to be the families of guerrillas. On the Nicaraguan side they are thought by some to work with or wink at the small bands of anti-Sandinista guardsmen and dissident tribesmen who operate in the lonely adjacent areas of Nicaragua. Sandinistas operate on the Honduran side, too.

The United States encourages the Honduran military to deprive Salvadoran guerrillas of Honduran sanctuary, and to intercept Salvador-bound supplies dispatched from Nicaragua--the Hondurans concede shortfalls in both departments. Whether we do or don't encourage former Somoza guardsmen to make trouble in Nicaragua I haven't been able to determine.

The word in Tegucigalpa is that Nicaragua, with its burgeoning army and its revolutionary ideology, is revving up local and other guerrillas in Honduras. I can believe it. Honduras has cracked some of the networks, finding arms, people, safe houses and so on. To the civilians in Tegucigalpa, this is painfully unfair, since Honduras did not stint in supporting the Sandinistas in their power-seeking days.

A beset government is shifting a few more lempiras from butter to guns. It is squeezing a few more dollars from the United States, whose $10 million in 1982 military "aid" (against $48 million in economic aid) is mostly in expensive credits. It has begun negotiations that, if considerations of Honduran sovereignty and constitutionality can be satisfied, would let the United States improve and use certain air facilities under agreed conditions.

The Nicaraguans offer to negotiate joint border patrols. It's the whole bag, however, not just the border, that worries Honduras: the numbers of Nicaraguan soldiers, Managua's political intentions, its foreign and Marxist ties, the refugees, the arms traffic, the guerrillas being readied for duty in Honduras. A "comprehensive" negotiating proposal is being prepared to present to Managua. It was not apparent when it would be ready.

One reason for the delay, I surmised, is that the armed forces, still the ultimate authority, are not fully aboard. The military leadership is attentive to the requirements of democratic form. But while one of its lobes says that the United States slumbers while the communists march, the other says that only closer military ties with Washington can spare Honduras the paroxysms that have overtaken its neighbors. The civilian opposition, meanwhile, frets that those closer ties will simply burden Honduras' frail democracy and provoke Nicaragua.

In these conditions, an uncommon amount of American sense and sensitivity is required. I got the impression much of it is there. We are cheapskates on development aid, though the Reagan bow to private enterprise was well received in some quarters. We have done some silly things, like elbowing Honduras, which has an elected government, into a letterhead organization of "democrats" with El Salvador, which does not.

Our general approach, however, seems to be pretty faithful to Honduras' stated needs and its state of nerves. We are working the Honduran military, but not, I gathered, recklessly. Fixing up the Honduran airfields offers risk but some reassurance, too. What made me most nervous was the possibility that, by fooling around with ex-Somoza guardsmen and the like, we might nudge our Honduran friends into the kind of soup we would be unable to get them out of without big trouble.

On the edge of every crisis spot there always seems to be an innocent party, shabby perhaps but worthy, desperate for detachment but vulnerable to being drawn in through no towering fault of its own--a Cambodia, a Lebanon, a sideshow. In Central America it's Honduras, with Costa Rica and Panama and then Belize perhaps not too far behind. They deserve better.