“Can you spare some change?” Those are words I would never have imagined uttering in a million years. As a freelance writer, money can be scarily scarce at times but I have been blessed, gratefully so, with steady gigs and family support in case of financial emergencies. Asking for money from strangers was never on my agenda—until Sunday.
Here’s how I became a beggar…
I was in Cowichan Bay, BC on a trip exploring the burgeoning craft distillery scene on Vancouver Island. On recommendations from the hotel staff at Oceanfront Suites where I was staying, I headed to True Grain Bakery (they hand-mill their own flour!) for breakfast. The freshly baked goods—from croissants to kipferls—gleamed with goodness in the display case. The aromas of baking bread, cinnamon and vanilla had me salivating.
I carefully chose my indulgent pastry, ordered coffee and picked up a bag of shortbread cookies (my all-time favorite cookie to have with my morning coffee) to take home with me and share with my boyfriend. The cashier rang it up saying, “That’ll be 15.75.” I handed her my credit card.
“We don’t take credit cards, only Canadian or U.S. cash,” says the young, fresh-faced girl working at the bakery. This was my fatal error. I had only two U.S. dollars stuffed in my wallet and a few Canadian pennies rolling around in my purse.
This wasn’t the first time I found myself cash strapped on a trip.
Exactly a year ago, headed to Malaysia with Lindsay, I reached for my wallet to buy some water at the airport and discovered it missing. I quickly realized I left it in my gym bag at home. No wallet?? I’m going halfway around the world with not even a cent to my name? What the hell was I going to do now. Luckily, when I shared my plight with Lindsay, she—ever the practical problem-solver of our friendship—piped up: “I’ll just cover you and you can pay me back.” Whew, saved by my co-vixen.
But this time was different. There was no Lindsay to cover for my oversights. No public relations person to rush in and save me from an awkward situation. No family member or boyfriend to foot the bill. I was traveling solo.
In the small town of roughly 1,500 people, I figured my chance of finding an ATM or bank open at eight in the morning was slim to none. Much to my relief, the cashier informed me there was one a few doors down at the local liquor store.
A grandmotherly-looking lady behind the counter greets me with a chipper ‘Good Morning’ as I head for the ATM. Two attempts later, my card isn’t working. A line behind me develops with locals patiently waiting for the ATM as I futz around with the machine. I’m getting frustrated and desperate as I know there’s at least $20 in my account.
Feeling bad I’m holding up three other people, I step out of line and ask the lady if there’s a problem with the machine. A man, with a wad of cash in his hand, informs me that the internet connection is slow, but he just got money and I should try again.
With visions of a warm chocolate croissant paired with a cup of steaming coffee dancing in my head, I’m emboldened to shove my debit card in the money machine again.
At this point, there’s a bit of a crowd watching (and almost cheering me on) to see if this foreigner can score some cash. DENIED—again! Obviously ‘three times a charm’ is hogwash at this Cowichan liquor store.
Letting out a huge sigh of disappointment, I say incredulously (and audibly) to myself, “This is so sad! I can’t even buy coffee?!”
A lady buying some gum at the counter spins around and says, “That is sad! Here, have a loonie (Canadian dollar coin) to go towards a coffee,” and places the coin on the counter.
“Oh no. That’s okay,” I say, feeling my face flush with embarrassment.
“I know I’m worthless without my morning coffee,” she replies and leaves without picking up the coin. I laugh and sheepishly pocket the coin.
The same store attendant that greeted me starts digging through her purse. She gathers a collection of small coins that probably totaled 50 cents. Feeling more comfortable with concept of receiving money from strangers, I ask gingerly, but with my hand outstretched and cupped, “Are you sure?” The elderly lady readily agrees that I should have my morning coffee.
Overhearing my coffee charity case, a man with a sea-worn face, probably from years working in the bay as a fisherman, marches over, says nothing, drops another loonie in my hand and spins on his heels and leaves.
Encouraged by being so close to scoring that elusive coffee and fresh pastry (combined with my feelings of shame over becoming a beggar for such a frivolous thing now at a manageable level), I boldly announced, like a Jerry Lewis telethon, “I’m only two dollars short!”
Mostly likely out of pity or peer-pressure from seeing others give, two more people in the store come up to the counter and plunk down coins in my outstretched hand. I thanked each one profusely, telling them how I thought Cowichan Bay locals were the best Canadians ever. (After all, this is the town with a fish memorial.)
Pockets jingling with change, I walked out of the store completely dazed and amazed.
Did that really just happen? Was I so hellbent on my foodie ambitions to sample the area’s best baked goods that I would stoop to begging? Apparently, the answer is yes.
I’ve always sang praises of Canadians, with their polite, kind dispositions. But now, after that overwhelming generous encounter? I’m an indebted (literally), lifetime fan.
As Hillary Clinton said once, “It takes a village.” Thank you Cowichan Bay for being my village that came to my fanatic foodie rescue. And I have to say, because it was provided by the kindness of strangers, it was (and will remain) the best breakfast of my life.
And this is why we travel… To get kicked out of our comfort zone in order to experience the surreal, strange and simply awesome moments that occur on the road. *** FYI, this isn’t the first time kind strangers wanted to foot our food bill when we ran out of money. Watch our Art + Beer Misadventure video for the full, crazy story.