Eric was still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes as we sat in the hotel bar drinking a Prestige stubby. He paced back and forth and was noticeably upset about his missing dog.” It’s just a mutt, but it’s the friendliest dog you’ve ever seen”,he said. There had been a little shendig the night before and the dog had been wagging his tail and jumping on everyone’s lap until he suddenly went missing. Eric and Lana owned the hotel and Panda was the unofficial mascot of the Perroquet. Maybe the door had been left open and he’d ended up in a stranger’s arms, or maybe he’d been dognapped. Either way he was gone and Eric was not happy about it.
Port Au Prince is a big crowded city where somehow everyone is connected and Eric knew it was only a matter of time before someone talked. There were a couple of informer types, the Haitian equivalents to Huggy Bear on Starsky and Hutch, lurking around the bar and having their people call their people so the dog could be located. A man named Jackson arrived at the bar and started speaking to the owner in a fast paced Kreol. It turns out that the dog had been located and was being held for ransom. The new owners were demanding 10,000 gourdes or $200 USD before the dog could be returned.
I’ve seen enough police movies to know how this works. The guy with the dog calls you and lets you hear the animal bark or sends you a bloody paw wrapped in plastic. In reality there were no phone calls or delivery of animal parts, but there was a designated drop off zone. We were invited to come along as ad hoc negotiators and it was impossible to refuse. A dog’s life might be hanging in the balance.
Each member or our party was each relegated to a different motorcycle taxi and within seconds we were racing down backstreets to meet up with the dognappers. When we arrived at the spot, there were a handful of thugs standing outside a dirty mini-market. Haitians in general seem very friendly to me, but these guys looked like they were itching to do something mean to someone. I pulled out my phone to film myself narrating the story and one of the riffraff started shouting at me, thinking mistakenly that I was filming him.I set him straight but I could see them sizing me up and down, looking to see what I might have in my pockets or maybe if I was able to handle myself should something go down. There was a whole lot of talking but no dog in sight. We got back on motorcycles and started heading back towards the hotel and suddenly stopped in the market area for no apparent reason.
A Haitian market is like no other in the world. There are thousands of people selling and buying mangos, shoes, shirts and as it turns out on this particular day, one dog. There he was, wagging his tail, oblivious of the malintentions of his captors. It was Panda, the dog erroneously named since he bore not even the slightest resemblance to a panda. As a self-proclaimed journalist, I did what any other journalist would do, I started filming. The dog was sitting on a little table and being roughly handled by a creepy looking guy. There were piles of trash heaped next to the curb with flies buzzing around and typhoid in the air. Suddenly the dog napper saw me filming Panda and he went ballistic. I had only captured a few seconds of the dog and the captor wasn’t even in the shot but you might have thought I had just found a murder weapon with his finger prints. He was more than agitated and was speaking loudly to the motorcycle taxi driver who had brought me. The situation seemed to be elevating quickly and I didn’t want to be responsible for a dog-icide or my own death so I started slowly inching my way out of the hub of the drama. He was speaking Kreole but I could understand that he was talking about my video and then I noticed he was holding a knife. He looked like he was trying to hide it which made it doubly scary. Suddenly, one of his minions came over to me and said that he wanted me to come over. I imagined several scenarios, with none of them pleasant for me.
In addition to mangoes and shoes, it turns out, one can buy all kinds of random hardware at these crowded markets. I noticed a big slightly rusted machete for sale at the kiosk next to me. For less than $2, it turns out that you can become a badass in Haiti. I went from vulnerable tourist to Buford Pusser in 30 seconds. Why did I buy a machete? I suppose it’s the same reason that kids like to carry around swords. It protects them from monsters under the bed and imaginary pirates. However there are real pirates in Haiti and even though I had no intention on brandishing a machete on anyone, I felt like that there was less of a chance that anyone would mess with a sea urchin over a starfish. I now had spikes.
The thugs had thought that they were dealing with a typical tourist that would be intimidated by a show of force and being outnumbered as the only white guy in a sea of black natives. They were partially right. I was nervous. The scenario was more than scary and I had no allies. What they didn’t expect is that this same tourist would not say a word, but calmly walk over to the weapon center, buy the biggest knife in the market and toss it around like the guy from Ratatouille. I could see them out of the corner of my eye and it became clear that they were not going to chase after me and risk having a hand chopped off for a video clip. We walked through the crowd like Moses parting the Red Sea. I’ve been stared at before. People usually notice my hat and make comments. With the complete lack of tourists, they’re doubly fascinated with a random tall white guy with a cowboy hat. Now things were different. Instead, they looked at my machete, looked at me, and didn’t utter a word.
What exactly happened after my machete purchase is a little bit of a mystery. As we approached the hotel we saw Panda arriving with one of the motorcycle drivers. Somehow the hostage situation had magically disappeared. Panda was happy no matter who was holding him, but seemed especially joyous when he was reunited with his rightful owners. Had the captors had a change of heart? Did they think a crazy white guy was going to kill their family with a machete? I suppose we’ll never know the answer to any of these questions, but I suppose in the long run, it doesn’t really matter. Panda is safe and there’s a handful of Haitians who’ll think twice before they mess with Texas.