Confessions of a Traveling Foodie: ‘I Was an Accidental Panhandler’

By Lanee Lee Neil

“Can you spare some change?”

Those are five words I would have never imagined myself uttering in a million years. As a freelance writer, money can be scarily scarce at times, but I’ve been blessed — gratefully so — with both steady gigs and family support in case of financial emergencies. Asking for money from strangers was never on my agenda … until it was.


The beautiful Cowichan Bay harbor. (Photo: Lanee Lee Neil/The Voyage Vixens)

I was traveling in Cowichan Bay, British Columbia, on a trip exploring the burgeoning craft distillery scene on Vancouver Island. The hotel staff at Oceanfront Suites, where I was staying, suggested I head to True Grain Bread, where they hand-mill their own flour for breakfast. As a true foodie who lives for good local grub, I followed their advice and made my way there. When I arrived, 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.


True Grain Bread smells just as homey as it looks. (Photo: Lanee Lee Neil/The Voyage Vixens)

I carefully chose my indulgent pastry, ordered coffee, and picked up a bag of shortbread cookies — my all-time favorite treat — to take home and share with my boyfriend later. The cashier rang it up, and said, “That’ll be 15.75.” I handed her my credit card. “We don’t take credit cards, only Canadian or U.S. cash,” said the young, fresh-faced girl working at the bakery.

That was my fatal error.

I only had two U.S. dollars stuffed in my wallet, and a few Canadian pennies rolling around in my purse. And this wasn’t the first time I had found myself cash-strapped on a trip, either.

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Exactly one year ago, when I headed to Malaysia with my friend and Voyage Vixens co-founder Lindsay, I reached for my wallet to buy some water at the airport and discovered it was missing. I quickly realized I’d left it in my gym bag at home. No wallet?? I was going halfway around the world without even a cent to my name? What the hell was I going to do now, I thought. Luckily, when I shared my plight with Lindsay, she — 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 my oversights. No family member or boyfriend to foot the bill. I was traveling solo.

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In the small town of roughly 1,500 people, I figured my chances of finding an ATM or bank open at 8 a.m. were slim to none. But much to my relief, the cashier informed me that there was one a few doors down — at the local liquor store.

A grandmotherly looking lady behind the counter greeted me with a chipper “good morning” as I made a beeline for the ATM. Two attempts later, my card still wasn’t working. A line behind me developed, with locals patiently waiting for the ATM as I futzed around with the machine. I was getting frustrated and desperate, as I knew that I had at least $20 in my account.

Feeling bad that I was holding up three other people, I stepped out of line and asked the lady if there was a problem with the machine. A man, with a wad of cash in his hand, informed me that the Internet connection was slow, but he’d just gotten 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 shoved my debit card in the money machine again.


The croissants made her do it. (Photo: Lanee Lee Neil/The Voyage Vixens)

At this point, a bit of a crowd had gathered — almost cheering me on — to see if this foreigner could score some cash. DENIED — again! Obviously “third time’s the charm” is hogwash at this Cowichan liquor store.

Letting out a huge sigh of disappointment, I said incredulously (and audibly) to myself, “This is so sad! I can’t even buy coffee?!”

And that’s when it happened. A lady buying some gum at the counter spun around and said, “That is sad! Here, have a loonie (Canadian dollar coin) to go toward a coffee,” and placed the coin on the counter.

“Oh no. That’s OK,” I said, feeling my face flush with embarrassment.

“I know I’m worthless without my morning coffee,” she replied, and left without picking up the coin. I laughed and sheepishly pocketed the coin.

The same store attendant that greeted me started digging through her purse. She gathered a collection of small coins that probably totaled 50 cents. Feeling more comfortable with concept of receiving money from strangers, I asked gingerly, but with my hand outstretched and cupped, “Are you sure?” The elderly lady readily agreed 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, marched over, said nothing, dropped another loonie in my hand, and spun on his heels and left.

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Encouraged by being so close to scoring that elusive coffee and fresh pastry, 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 came up to the counter and plunked 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.)


Any town with a salmon memorial is an amazing town in her book. (Photo: Lanee Lee Neil/The Voyage Vixens)

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 stooped to begging? Apparently, the answer is yes.

I’ve always sung the praises of Canadians, with their polite, kind dispositions. But now, after that overwhelmingly generous encounter? I’m an indebted lifetime fan — literally.


Thanks to Cowichan Bay, Lanee has a new appreciation for the kindness of strangers. (Photo: Lanee Lee Neil/The Voyage Vixens)

As Hillary Clinton said once, “It takes a village.” So thank you, Cowichan Bay, for being my village who came to my fanatic foodie rescue. And I have to say, because that coffee and pastry was provided by the kindness of strangers, it was — and will always remain — the best breakfast of my life.

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