Wheels of For­tune

On a fam­ily trip to New­found­land and Labrador, we were stuck in St. John’s with­out a car. One stranger had an in­ge­nious—and un­usual—so­lu­tion.

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - ADRI­ANA AÑON FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL

On a trip to New­found­land, my fam­ily was stuck with­out a car. One stranger had an in­ge­nious so­lu­tion.

ON THE FIRST MORN­ING of a three-day fam­ily va­ca­tion in St. John’s, my hus­band asked our chatty cab driver what made him most proud to be a New­found­lan­der.

“Our gen­eros­ity and hos­pi­tal­ity,” he replied in a strong lo­cal ac­cent. “If your car breaks down in the mid­dle of nowhere, you won’t be left alone. Some­one will pick you up, help you out and prob­a­bly drive you home if you need. Peo­ple here are kind like that.”

We’d heard of the Broad­way mu­si­cal Come From Away, which is about how 7,000 stranded air­line pas­sen­gers were gen­er­ously housed in Gan­der when their flights were grounded on 9/11. But could spon­ta­neous kind­ness be the com­mon qual­ity of an en­tire prov­ince? Is it pos­si­ble for at­ti­tudes and habits to spread through com­mu­ni­ties like a virus? The ques­tion lin­gered in my mind dur­ing that ride to the fa­mous his­tor­i­cal land­mark Sig­nal Hill with my hus­band and our two teenage kids.

Lit­tle did I know we were about to have a chance to ex­pe­ri­ence some of this re­mark­able New­found­land and Labrador gen­eros­ity our­selves.

WE MET ALMA by Sig­nal Hill, at the start of the North Head Trail—the one that over­looks St. John’s and its har­bour to the west and the At­lantic to the east. On that bright, blue-sky sum­mer day in 2017, the view was vaster and more al­lur­ing than we’d ever imag­ined.

Our kids hur­ried ahead, and as we lagged, ad­mir­ing the scenery, two women in sunglasses and light hik­ing gear stopped. They’d heard us dis­cussing dif­fer­ent routes and asked if we’d like sug­ges­tions. They looked to be in their 40s, one blond and one brunette, full of en­ergy and both en­thu­si­as­tic to share their ex­per­tise. We lis­tened ea­gerly, tak­ing men­tal notes, un­til the pleas­ant blond lady asked, “You have a car, right?”

I ex­plained that they were out of cars at the rental agency, so we’d set­tled on tak­ing cabs to the dif­fer­ent hikes.

“Oh no,” she said, “you need a car.” And then, as ca­su­ally as if of­fer­ing a squirt of sunblock, she said: “Take mine!”

Dumb­founded, my hus­band and I just smiled in dis­be­lief.

As my fam­ily ex­plored the coun­try­side in her car,

we texted Alma to let her know ev­ery­thing was okay.

“Why not?” she in­sisted. “Take my car; I won’t need it. You need a car to get to know all these places.”

“But you don’t even know us,” I said. “That doesn’t mat­ter,” she con­tin­ued. “Do you have a li­cence?”

Stunned, I looked over at her friend. The brunette smil­ing from be­hind her sunglasses shrugged and said, “That’s Alma.”

I walked away, not sure of what to make of it all. (Alma later told me that I seemed vis­i­bly dis­tressed, as if I couldn’t han­dle the sit­u­a­tion. The fact was that I had nei­ther the rude­ness to refuse nor the re­solve to ac­cept.)

Alma and her friend Renée con­tin­ued talk­ing with my hus­band. I could hear him telling them more about us.

“We’re from Uruguay,” he ex­plained, “but we live in Ot­tawa.” This brief de­tail only seemed to make Alma more de­ter­mined.

“Oh, you have to take the car, then. You came all the way here? You’re only here for two more days?”

Forty min­utes of hik­ing later, my fam­ily was cram­ming into the back of Renée’s car, while Alma squeezed into the pas­sen­ger side, hold­ing her friend’s empty child seat. Renée was giv­ing us a lift to a nearby park­ing lot, where Alma’s car awaited.

“We’ll need your ad­dress, Alma, so we can re­turn your car,” I said. This sim­ple com­ment drew ner­vous laugh­ter from all of us, as if we were giddy kids in on a se­cret.

Every­one, that is, ex­cept my 14-yearold daugh­ter, a young lady with a keen sense of own­er­ship. “There is,” she said as our fam­ily fi­nally climbed into Alma’s black Acura, “some­thing se­ri­ously wrong with what we are do­ing.”

THANKS TO ALMA, we spent the re­main­der of our time in St. John’s dis­cov­er­ing the ma­jes­tic East Coast Trail and its bor­der­ing cliffs, where the scent of sea air min­gled with spruce trees. We watched pods of whales swim nearby. It didn’t take long to con­firm that New­found­land—re­mote, unique and un­for­get­table—was a place we’d done well to visit.

Ev­ery so of­ten, as my fam­ily ex­plored the coun­try­side in her car, we texted Alma to let her know ev­ery­thing was okay. She texted back, say­ing that she’d told her hus­band, Ed, about her de­ci­sion, and he was fine with it. For our fi­nal evening, Alma in­vited us over for din­ner. She and Ed made us feel im­me­di­ately at home. We shared im­pres­sions of our pe­cu­liar meet­ing as if we were dis­cussing a movie we’d re­cently seen star­ring our­selves.

Since re­turn­ing to Ot­tawa, I have ex­changed emails with Alma. She re­minds me that we were “hard nuts to crack,” but she is grate­ful that we al­lowed her to help us. I tell her how our story as­tounds me all over again, each time I tell it.

Peo­ple have dif­fer­ent re­sponses: some say it’s in­cred­i­ble; most agree they’d never lend their car to a stranger—but those who’ve been to the prov­ince are not sur­prised.

The re­ac­tion that stays with me most is what Alma’s brother told her when she texted him that she had just lent her car to a fam­ily of strangers. He wrote, sim­ply, “That’s how you make new friends.”

I no longer doubt that, at least in New­found­land, ran­dom acts of kind­ness are an epi­demic.

BY ADRI­ANA AÑON FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL

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