Everything about this beautiful island lends itselfs to a meeting and a misunderstanding between North and South America.

Alaska and Argentina may be part of the same zone of influence but they belong to different worlds.

That rocky collision of cultures - a general sense of disorientation, mixed with mutual suspicion and fascination - has been the social undercurrent of the Pan American Games.

Puerto Rico seems dichotomous, sundered, almost schizophrenic. To the north is the Atlantic Ocean and a powerful modern gringo industrial society. To the south is the Caribbean and the sprawling poverty and political instability of Latin America. Politically and emotionally, Puerto Rico is caught between.

The breathtaking Cordillera Central, with its steep-shouldered mountains and emerald valleys, also cuts the island in half. To the north are verdant tropical rain forests and flowering trees; to the south are arid salt flats, deserts with cacti as tall as a man and a phosphorescent bay where every ripple in a boat's wake at night is stitched with light.

Puerto Ricans are as divided as their island, as unsure and perplexed about their collective identity as any people could be; split politically, as they always have been among factions that favor statehood, continued commonwealth or independence.

Playing host to theseGames has been a psychic show of strength, an attempt to prove that Puerto Rico could stand in the middle and balance its allegiances to the mighty welfare-granting United States and its poor, Latin Brothers,

As a result, these Games have felt neither the crisp efficiency of North Amercia, nor the improvisational poetry of Latin America. They have been a not-quite-anything truce.

Perhaps the best symbol of that air of perlexed testiness was the incident Monday between Bobby Knight, the United States basketball coach, representing the workaholic American who reduces worship of success to absurdity, and a Puerto Rico cop, representing the insecure Latin who gets his macho ruffled.

They argued over a trifle, pointed fingers and finally pushed or punched. Knight, handcuffed, ended up spending 12 minutes in a jail cell. A trail date has been set.

That, unfortunately, may be the way these Games end - both North and South Americans returning home to make out a list of grievances.

"The food's good," said one pitcher on the United States baseball team, trying to be gracious. "But, gee, this sure is a dirty, ugly little island, isn't it?"

It certainly might seem to be if you are one of the 5,000 athletes in the Guardsman-ringed Pan American Village - an armed camp holding its breath against the supposed terrorists lurking in the Latin night.

It is impossible for North Americans to understand and appreciate their Latin neighbors if they taste only a squalid city like San Juan - divided between opulently rich and barrio poor.

To sense what Puerto Rican temperament says about Latin spirit in general, it is necessary to venture "out-on-the-island" - the local phrase here for anything outside San Juan.

Americans and Canadians tend to judge these proceedings by urban standards of efficiency, rather than Latin standards of slow rural pleasure.

A typical exchange here might be a Games official asking an American, "Are you having a good time?" To which the American probably would reply, "The air-conditioning in my room is broken. How could I be having a good time?"

Each will depart certain that the other is crazy.

The crucial passwords in these humid latitudes are "que pasa" (what's happening) and "manana" (tomorrow).Americans worry about the future, plan agendas, look for problems to solve. Latins think about the present, delay schedules until "manana" and avoid problems with a smile.

Consequently, many Americans here think these Games have been incompetently organized since competitions have repeatedly been delayed or cancelled and nit-picking arguments have been rampant. Latins, particularly OOPAN officials, feel the Games are a gigantic success because, generally speaking, almost everthing that was planned has pretty much happened somewhere near the time it was supposed to happen and everybody had a good time, didn't they?

On an island with an average national income of $2,500 a year, where 60 percent of the population is on welfare, did somebody expect the precision of a Detroit assembly line?

To inwardly sense the validity of the Latin lassitude, it is necessary to get a feeling for a land where "scarcity" is primarly an academic economic term since fruit hangs from the trees and fish fill the water.

Here, the morrow truly does seem to take care of itself.

All seasons are lush, bathed in Caribbean breezes. The sight of San Juan Bay still brings back Christopher Columbus' words when he first saw it in 1493 - "Que Puerto Rico." What a rich port.

This is the time for African tulips, pink cassias, yellow flamboyants and butterily trees. The valleys hold blue-green fields of pineapples and tobacco crops blended with plantains. Up in the rain forest, steaming from its 100 billion gallons of rainfall each year, are seas of white ginger, bromeliads and orchids, all washing around the feet of sierra palm and hollow colorado.

There, in the El Yunque, time seems to stop and the tropical forest with its hanging ferns and multicolored parrots testifies that it has not changed an iota since the Spaniards, hungry for gold, first saw it nearly 500 years ago.

For young athletes, many of them just muscled children who are desparately concerned about the difference between 13.46 seconds and 13.67 seconds in the 110-meter hurdles, it is easy to miss Puerto Rico's eternal whisperings.

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said that Latin lands taught an impure dirt-under-the-fingernails poetry where the harassed lyricist needed only to study the ancient relationship between man and the earth to find old, yet fresh texts.

Study the used surface of things, worn with the hand's obligations, Neruda advised, and never tire of the oldest themes, which he called "all our hackneyed endearments."

Ideally, this is the purpose of international athletic competition - to offer athletes and their fans a chance not only to run races but to study the used surfaces of things in another land, to sense the old endearments and passions that motivate another people.

never fear, that's not going to happen here.

The Pan American Games have been reduced to their lowest common denominator - the actual final scores of the Games themselves.

What these Games teach best are the superficial quirks of national habits. Brazilian basketball players scream in their coach's face, put themselves in games and sometimes refuse to play. Venezuela's baseball batting coach stands 15 feet from home plate and gives his harassed hitter copious advice before every pitch.

While these Games have been, at root, enjoyable and only mildly contentious, they also have been more a collision of cultures than a bringing together and an elucidation of different ways of life.

The exception to the rule was the fine moment after Cheyenne Vassallo of the United States set a world swimming record on his return to the native Puerto Rico. After the Star Spangled Banner, the crowd sang the Puerto Rican anthem - proof that for one minute, at least, they could understand that one man could have several affections and several allegiances, all of them valid.

More typical of the charged atmosphere of misunderstanding here was an occurence with George Torres, the star of the Puerto Rican basketball team that figures to meet the United States for a gold medal on Friday night.

A gang of Latin newshounds engulfed the young hero who might bring Puerto Rico its only Pan Am gold and a prestige win over the imperialistic Yanks to boot.

Microphones were jabbed at Torres' face as a deluge of Spanish questions about politics and Puerto Rican national identily were hurled at him.

"Hey, man, hol on. I can't understand you." said Torres. "My Spanish isn't too good yet. You see, I'm from the South Bronx."