I was in a gift shop the first time I heard it. The tune was familiar but I couldn’t pair a title to the song.
“It’s ‘Smoke on the Water,” Dave said. “Or ‘Smoke in the Water.’ Either way, the title doesn’t make any sense.”
I knew the instrument was an ocarina. They are sold in every gift shop in La Fortuna and perhaps every gift shop in Costa Rica.
At night in La Fortuna, there wasn’t much to do besides wander the streets, eat casados in local restaurants, and browse gift shops. Every gift shop in town carried the same wares. Devilish masks, souvenir magnets, colorful messenger bags, and shelves of ocarinas. Some circular, some animal-shaped. Ocarinas made up a quarter of gift shop merchandise. It became my favorite joke. I’d pick up a ceramic vase in a gift shop and, turning it over, say, “How am I supposed to play this? It doesn’t even have holes.”
Later that same evening I heard the same tune whistled on the other side of the park in the center of La Fortuna and I supposed it was the same person. It happened again while I was drowsily scribbling on the terrace of Las Colinas Hotel. In the streets below me, motorcycles roared and Spanish sentences were rattled and “Smoke on the Water” rose up above it all. I thought, this guy needs to learn another song.
In the hotel room, I absentmindedly whistled the tune as I washed a frenzied mob of ants down the drain.
“Why do you have to do that?” Dave moaned.
“The song is in my head,” I said.
“It must be the default ringtone here. That’s why we hear it all the time.”
“Nah, it’s an ocarina.”
“But it sounds the same every time, like a ringtone, and we hear it in different places. It can’t just be one person.”
One night we went to dinner at a restaurant under a grass-roofed cabana. All of the staff wore traditional costumes. The menu featured pricy tropical cocktails and a volcano made of rice and a chocolate lava cake shaped like a volcano. We ate our usual casados – a large plate of rice, beans, plantains, and often meat or fish. The casado was the canvas to which salads, eggs, and avocado could be added. We ate this for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I must have had at least twenty casados while I was in Costa Rica.
While waiting for our meals, Dave and I both hummed “Smoke on the Water.”
“I’m going to ask the guy at the front desk of the hotel about the song,” Dave said. “He probably could tell us what it is.”
The front desk agent at the hotel, a Tico who always wore a baseball cap and a polo shirt, had already helped Dave with a rope burn he got from a rappelling accident. He taught me that the tape used with gauze is called espadrapo. He wrote down the name of a burn ointment for me to take to the nearest pharmacia. Now he was our go-to for all Ask-a-Tico questions.
As we were discussing “Smoke on the Water,” we suddenly heard the song playing nearby. We looked around the restaurant for a tourist or a cell phone or whatever it might have been.
We saw the Ocarina Man standing just outside of the cabana, serenading us with his usual ocarina solo and making his continuous eye contact. The Ocarina Man saw our excitement and thought he had found his customers. He was a traveling salesman, a walking advertisement for the ocarina. We had found each other at last.
The next day we would ride in a van with two other couples to see a waterfall in the rainforest. The Canadian couple would tell us about how they stayed up too late and drank too much at a tourist trap called the Lava Lounge, the only nightlife to be found in La Fortuna. They would tell us about how they sat at the edge of the cabana with their drinks and chatted with tourists and Ticos passing by. They would mention how they met a man who carves little flute-things by hand. The Canadian guy would describe how the Ocarina Man takes six days to make each little flute, how there was a different animal on each side. He was impressed by the artistry and bought one for ten dollars.
We had met the Ocarina Man on the same night that they did, but we didn’t buy anything. We never approached him or looked at his ocarinas. I wasn’t looking for souvenirs or anything else to weigh down my suitcase. I already had enough talking, spending money, and being awake for one day. But the night was still young for the Ocarina Man. His sack of ocarinas was so heavy and his wallet was still so light.