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.
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.