Canada: Locked out

The sheer unpredictability of travel is part of its enduring charm, and the best adventures are surely those that gift us tales to tell. In this part of our Travellers' Tales series, we head to Canada.

By Adrian Phillips
Published 27 Oct 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 17:12 BST
Winding road through the Ontario forest.

Winding road through the Ontario forest.

Photograph by Getty Images

"How do you plan to pay?" Henry asked, walking around the car and rubbing his beard with oil-smeared fingers. There was something weasely about his expression.

"You don't take cards, I suppose?"


"I've only $20 in cash. Will that cover it?" Henry just shrugged, and then got to work.

It was 11.40am and the clock was ticking. A guided trek into the depths of Haliburton Forest was intended as the highlight of my Canada trip, a last hurrah before I flew home the next day. The group would depart from the visitor centre at 1pm sharp — the sharp had been stressed — but on the way there I'd stopped at a grocery store and locked my keys in the boot of my hire car. I was ten miles away from the meeting point.

Henry, the local mechanic, forced a thick piece of wire through the window seal, feeding it towards the unlock button on the inside of the door. It was a painstaking, hair-tearing process. But after 20 minutes of muttered expletives, Henry opened the door with a smug flourish. And then jumped out of his skin.

The blare of a car alarm commands urgency. A flustered Henry prodded frantically at the 'open boot' button on the steering column. Nothing happened. He clambered into the back, hunting for a lever to drop the seats and gain access to the boot. But this was a convertible and the rear seats didn't lower.

"You should phone the rental company," Henry said above the din, emerging red-cheeked from the car. I punched the digits into my mobile, but the line wouldn't connect.

"It's because I'm using a foreign mobile," I explained.

Henry's non-foreign mobile sat on the bonnet of his truck. He looked at it, and then back at me. "There's a phone booth 200 metres up the road," he nodded.

"But I've no change, Henry."

He reached into the front of his dungarees. "Here's a quarter," he said, and started to roll a cigarette.

Those were a lonely 200 metres. It was 12.30pm; I'd surely missed my trek. A bank of gloomy clouds smothered the sun, and the branches of the pine trees drooped like sagging shoulders.

"Hey, wait up!"

I turned to see a shopper running to catch me up. "I got your key out!" he panted. He'd worked Henry's wire through a crack between the back seats and used it to hook the fob. I could have kissed his round, pink face.

Henry was leaning against my car with the key. "That'll be $40 for my time," he said.

"But I've only got $20!"

He shrugged his trademark shrug and drew on his cigarette. I cast a desperate eye on the ground, seeking inspiration or a $20 bill, and then dashed into the store.

"Do you do cash back?"

"Cash back, sir?" said the owner blankly, rolling the words in his mouth like a cow chewing cud.

"Yes! Can you charge an amount on a card and give that in cash?"

He pondered for an eternity. I imagined his tail swishing behind the counter. "Yes, sir, we can do that."

"Wonderful!" I handed him my debit card. He stared at it for a while. "But not on debit cards," he said.

It was the only card I had. "OK, OK. What if I buy something and overpay — could you give me the difference in cash?"

Again Mr Moo considered things. "Yes, sir, we can do that."


"But not on debit cards."

If I'd had a towel, I'd have thrown it in. The group would be heading out in 15 minutes, eyes peeled for wolves and bears, and I was stuck in the company of a cow-like man who… "I've paid Henry," said a voice nearby. It was my pink-faced saviour from earlier, with what I'm sure was a halo on his head.

"I can't let you do that!" I stuttered.

"Too late. It's done! If you follow my car, I'll get you to the visitor centre in time, too."

He was as good as his word. In fact, I arrived with a minute to spare. And for all the thrilling sights on my forest trek, it's the faces from the preceding hour I remember best; those of Mr Moo, the kind stranger and the weasel Henry — whose quarter I never did return.

Read more of the Travellers' Tales cover story in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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