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First person

Only in Newfoundland?

Adriana Anon is shocked when a stranger hands over her car keys so she can go exploring the unique island

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We were in St. John's, and my husband asked our talkative cab driver what made him most proud to be a Newfoundlander.

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

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We knew about the Broadway musical Come from Away, which tells how 7,000 stranded airline passengers were generously housed in Gander when their flights were grounded on 9/11. But could spontaneous kindness possibly 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 out to Signal Hill with my husband and teenage kids, heading out to explore on the first of a three-day vacation.

Little did I know we were about to experience some of that remarkable Newfoundland kindness.

We met Alma that same morning at the start of the North Head Trail by Signal Hill, 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 morning, the view from the trail was vaster and more alluring than we'd ever imagined.

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

I explained that they were out of cars at the car rental, so we'd decided 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.

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"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 with absolute resolve. "Do you have a licence?"

Stunned, I looked over at her friend, the brunette smiling from behind her sunglasses, who 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.

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"We're from Uruguay," he explained, "but we live in Ottawa." This only seemed to strengthen Alma's resolution.

"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 carrying her friend's empty childseat. Renée was giving us a lift to a nearby parking lot, where Alma's car awaited.

"You'll have to give us 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 shared secret.

Everyone, that is, except my daughter, a young lady with a keen sense of proprietary. "There is," she said as the family finally climbed into Alma's borrowed black Acura, "something seriously wrong with what we are doing."

Thanks to Alma, whose name means soul in Spanish, we spent the remainder of our time in St. John's discovering different areas of the majestic East Coast Trail and its bordering cliffs, where the scent of sea air mingled with spruce. 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 chosen well to visit.

Every so often – as my family explored the countryside in her car – we texted Alma letting her know that everything was okay, and she texted back, letting us know that she'd told her husband, Ed, about what she had done, 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 exchanged impressions of our peculiar meeting as if we were discussing a movie we'd recently seen starring ourselves.

Since the return to Ottawa, I have exchanged e-mails with Alma. She reminds me that we were "hard nuts to crack," but she is grateful that we allowed her to help us. I confess, once again, how her story continues to amaze, and how it amazes me all over again each time I tell it.

People have different reactions: Some say it's incredible, most agree they'd never lend their car to a stranger – but those who've been to Newfoundland are not surprised.

The reaction that lingers 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.

Adriana Anon lives in Ottawa.

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