By Molly Snyder Edler   Published Mar 29, 2001 at 1:13 AM

Nicaragua is a country of contrasts. I realized this late one night while driving on a rugged road riddled with potholes. I was with my two girlfriends, Cardinal and Jessica, and Jessica's new husband, Julio.

We were making the long haul from Granada, the oldest city in the Americas, to Somoto, where Jessica and Julio lived in a tile-roofed cottage. Maybe I was brainwashed by 1990s Contra War propaganda, but the world outside of our silver Daihatsu rental car seemed foreboding. Inside our vehicle, however, it was completely cozy, with the three of us singing "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" while Julio napped. Fear and comfort; comfort and fear.

I saw black volcanoes under deep blue skies, mango trees, hammocks swaying in the wind, handbags made from vibrant yarns, lush vegetables, fat tan cigars, coconuts heavy with sweet milk, parrots, monkeys and street vendors serving food in banana leaf bowls.

Yet I slept on top of filthy Barbie doll sheets on a hostel bed in Managua and bathed in shower stalls thick with mold. I saw countless Coca-Cola bottles tangled in weeds, coffee cans next to toilets overflowing with used toilet paper, gun-wearing guards in front of banks and skinny brown mice running across dirt floors. Beauty and filth; filth and beauty.

After leaving behind mortgages and crashing computers, I was relieved to be responsible only for the items I carried on my back, yet I still thought about the luxuries of home: my Madder Root shampoo, my Ani Difranco CDs, my fuzzy pink slippers. Free yet restricted; restricted yet free.

I had intimate conversations with my travel partners, but because I don't speak Spanish, I remained virtually silent with others around me. Some natives made amazing eye contact, even the children washing my car windows when I slowed down for a red light. They let their brown eyes lock with my green and, without speaking, we seemed to be saying, "Hello. What's it like to be you?" Communication breakthrough; communication breakdown.

Many men stared, whistled, cat-called; some women shook their heads in disapproval and disgust. I tried to understand their perspective: there are very few Gringas (white girls) in Nicaragua, and Gringas with as many tattoos as I have, well, that's just asking for attention.

But sometimes I couldn't relate at all. Especially when it came to the issue of time. Julio joked that Nicaraguans follow "Nica time." (For example, Jessica and Julio's wedding invitation said 4:30, but guests didn't arrive until 5 or 6.) A part of me thought it was very healthy and wonderful that Nicaraguans were so relaxed about time, but on other occasions, Nica time drove me bananas. Compassionate yet annoyed; annoyed yet compassionate.

And now, when I show others my photos, it seems appropriate that I didn't shoot any of them in color. Black and white; white and black.