Mural of Mexico: panoramic but poor

In Lars Gustafson's recent novel, ''The Tennis Player,'' a Swedish professor who teaches in Texas marvels that, to his students, ''the world outside of Texas is meant for war and tourism.''

Well, to most Americans, Mexico is no longer for war. We got over that during the last century. Now it's for tourism.

Mexico is the closest thing to us that's really foreign. It has always beckoned crafts-hungry tourists looking for a sleepy seaside in which to dangle their winter-weary limbs or a picturesque, fountain-centered village where they can forget for a moment that the Buick was ever invented or that Ed Koch presides over New York City.

Mexico occupies such a space on the United States' immediate horizon: The country hovers in the near distance like a hot cloud, full of romantic portent. We have seen a thousand images of the place in movies, books, poems.

Strange that we so little understand it.

Who can account, for instance, for the savage beauty and undefinable differentness of this country? ''It's another civilization,'' muses John Womack Jr., a Harvard professor and Mexico specialist. ''Get off a plane in Mexico City, drive for a couple of hours, and you might as well be in North Africa or Southeast Asia.''

Many people are simply not prepared for that. Nor are they ready for the realities of modern Mexico.

The travel posters promise a country that is ''Memorable. Mysterious. Monumental.'' And Mexico is all of that. But it is something else, too; especially right now.

Mexico is poor.

And for those who agree that poverty is not picturesque and squalor is not quaint, the country will offer more to contend with than Hispanic missions, siestas, manana, pyramids, and a cheap sombrero.

This is the third world. Somehow you don't put that fact together with your glossy travel brochures and dreams of sleepy little villages and Dolores Del Rio in a black lace shawl romancing Cesar Romero.

Change that to a dusty little square with a 1958 pickup truck and a man on a burro blocking your way while you bake in the heat and yearn for a McDonald's, and you have something closer to the reality of rural Mexico. Urban life, such as you find in Mexico City, means traffic jams and pollution and the usual pressure-cooker existence of modern city life.

So why come?

One reason is that the land is powerful in its topographical austerity. The imagery of this place surrounds and engulfs you. The architecture, colonial and Indian, provides a constantly shifting tableau of things to gape in wonder at: darkness settling over Guanajuato, a trembling of lights and a russet color on the earthen mountains; Mil Cumbres (A Thousand Peaks), the mountainous road between Morelia and Mexico City that snakes and swerves through thick pine forests and lofty dwellings; the rugged foothills of the Sierra Madres, a sudden upheaving of the earth, silent and majestic and immovable; the eerie, monumental earth forms echoed in Mayan and Incan art.

Coming here to see such sights is probably what tourism in Mexico is about. But there is a better reason to come: to understand something about the people. Therein lies the real drama and pageantry of this place - the beautiful, polymorphous, culturally rich, diverse, basically lethargic populace.

Only don't come with any romantic illusions. The mass of Mexicans (to paraphrase Thoreau) live lives of noisy desperation. Life is hard here. People who could afford burritos now eat only frijoles. People who once subsisted on frijoles now eat fewer frijoles. The dogs look anxiously over their shoulders.

This has always been the background for travel here. Only these days it has become harder to keep your eyes glued on the bell tower of that 18th-century church while neatly ignoring the poor man in broken shoes sitting on the curb.

A walk through Queretaro, birthplace of the Independence, for instance: You follow the winding streets back into the middle of a colonial backwater where the stucco walls loom old and endlessly quaint around you. A small church with a rugged courtyard sits invitingly on a corner. Back in the courtyard, an antique wooden bench invites you to sit down and wipe your hatband. Soon, an old woman wrapped in a dark shawl joins you.

In Spanish, you ask how she is.

''Very nervous, Senor,'' she answers, rubbing her eyes.

''Why so?''

''My husband died. My children only have money to support my grandchildren. There isn't enough left over for me. It makes me so nervous. You understand, don't you?''

Mexico has its hand out.

Jump into a cab in Mexico City, and your American accent can easily double the price. Merchants around the country have a sharp eye for gringos and the higher prices they will fall for. A cabdriver in Juarez quoted me a price of $90 American for a ride that cost $7 in a comfortable airport limousine.

Not that you can't travel on the cheap here.

While inflation has eaten away some of the frosting on the cake, the sweet allure of travel bargains still prevails.

It is possible to eat, sleep, and travel in high style without paying high prices. A luxury hotel, like the Casino Real in Mexico City, can be had for a paltry $50 to $60 a night; and we're talking same-day-clean-shirts here, with all the trimmings. You can eat a sparkling meal in Azulejos, the hotel's mid-range, ''international cooking'' restaurant for $10 to $15 each. (You can eat a lot more cheaply and better in restaurants around the city.)

These two things - lodgings and food - are wonderfully cheap. You do not, however, find a lot of real bargains in tangible goods. Wallets and bags are slightly cheaper than comparable goods in the States; and, more and more, the ''Hecho in Mexico'' (Made in Mexico) look of these goods is taking on a ''Made in Taiwan'' flimsiness. Shoes are inexpensive, but the workmanship looks shoddy. Clothing is expensive.

It is possible to travel in reasonable luxury in the countryside. (A two-room suite with flagstone terrace overlooking a sleepy village can be had for $35 to

But it is also wise to realize that this country was not built for comfort. It was built for the expectations of a people who are used to just getting by. And there is considerable wonderment over the dismay of a gringo who expects things to work as they do at home or in Europe.

Things don't work. ''No trabaja, ahorita'' (''It's not working, at this very moment'') is the stock response to a traveler's questions about the television, the pool heater, the bus that was supposed to zip you to the airport in the nick of time. And you know that ''this very moment'' extends backward and forward into time.

Should you choose to drive around the countryside, you will have ample time to contemplate this fact as you sit behind a huge truck laying down a smoke screen of acrid pollutants as it strains to climb a hill. You will get on what looks like a reasonable highway, only to find yourself 10 minutes later crawling through some little town at 4 miles an hour - jogging over the speed bumps and trying to avoid eye contact with the exasperated traffic cop.

Should you decide to fly from place to place (a very inexpensive option in this country), you will miss the whole sweep of human drama in the countryside - which means you will miss Mexico.

The other alternatives are first-class buses and trains, both of which have excellent reputations that only slightly outstrip the reality. The train routes are thin. The buses are everywhere.

Second-class buses and trains are incredibly loud, squalid, and noisome. They continually remind you that there is something vaguely unpleasant about being a comfortable traveler in an uncomfortable land. You have to think about why you are here and what it all means.

Mexico's misfortune is, after all, your gain. The devaluation of the peso, which cut Mexicans' real wages in half and continues to erode their livelihood, drops a windfall of purchasing power in your lap.

So Americans continue to look on Mexico as a sort of bargain basement - right below the ground floor of Texas.

An American I met in the Sierra Madres, for example. He sat by a crackling fireplace one night, after a particularly robust meal served by an Indian maid, and recounted with exasperation his conversation with a cabdriver in Chihuahua:

''The guy kept saying in English he wanted American money for the ride. He knew how to say that all right. As soon as I tried to ask him anything else, it was 'Yip, yip, yip.' All Spanish.''

Somehow it got lost in the translation that there is no reason a man should not speak only his own language in his own hometown. That he also has every right to angle for every cent he can squeeze out of his harried work in this country. That the country may not be here for visitors' exclusive convenience. That maybe, just maybe, Mexico is not only for tourism, after all.

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