For Catalina Bernal Andrade, Christmas 2009 was unusual – in more ways than one.
That year, Catalina’s father had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Catalina, then 31, had moved back into her parents’ home in Bogotá, Colombia, to support them through his treatment.
Christmas rolled around, and Catalina and her family celebrated as best they could, despite the tough circumstances. In Colombia, the main festive celebrations take place on December 24, and staying up all night is pretty common. Catalina and her family enjoyed a Christmas Eve filled with drinking, dining and festivities.
After only a few hours of sleep, Catalina and her mother woke up on Christmas Day to head to El Dorado International Airport.
Catalina’s father had encouraged his wife and daughter to go on vacation between Christmas and the New Year.
“He was undergoing chemo and a very, very harsh treatment. So he wanted us – my mom and I – to take some holiday,” Catalina tells CNN Travel today. “We both decided that we were going to Disney World, that it was a fun place to be for a week.”
Catalina and her mother boarded their JetBlue flight to Orlando, Florida, and settled into their seats – Catalina in the middle, her mom in the aisle and a stranger in the window.
Over the intercom, the captain wished the passengers “Merry Christmas.” Catalina glanced around and guessed that most of the travelers were en route to visit family in the United States.
“I do remember people with a lot of carry-ons, with bags full of presents,” says Catalina.
There were several family groups, but Catalina’s window seat neighbor seemed to be traveling alone. He was a man, probably in his 30s, sitting quietly reading and wearing headphones. Catalina was grateful he was keeping to himself.
“I was just chatting with my mom about how hard those previous months were, and how we needed to take some time off to relax before the upcoming surgeries that my dad was going to undergo,” she recalls.
The flight took off, and before long, Catalina’s mother fell asleep. In fact, most people on the airplane were napping, seemingly sleep deprived from the previous day’s celebrations.
A couple of hours into the journey, the flight attendant handed Catalina a US immigration form to complete. Back in 2009, these forms had yet to be digitized.
“I was all by myself filling out those forms, and I didn’t know the flight number. So I turned around to this random guy who was sitting next to me,” recalls Catalina.
A bit awkwardly, aware she was interrupting him, Catalina caught his attention.
“He was plugged into his iPod. So I was like, ‘Hi, I’m sorry, can you give me the flight number?’ “
The stranger in the window seat pulled a single headphone out his ear.
“123,” he replied, and put his headphone back in, abruptly, turning back to his book.
Catalina filled out the forms – one for her, one for her mother. But afterward, reading over them, she realized she’d made a mistake.
Ripping them up, she asked the flight attendant for a new set and started over.
Now quite flustered, she’d already forgotten the flight number. She turned once again to the man sat next to her.
“Hey, I’m so sorry to bother you. Please can you remind me of the flight number again?” she asked.
This time, to Catalina’s surprise, the stranger was more friendly.
“Yeah, of course,” he said, taking both his headphones out this time.
The stranger had his ticket on his lap, and Catalina read the name printed at the top: “Mauricio García Marulanda.”
By coincidence, Catalina knew someone with the exact same name, and she commented this, aloud. From there, Catalina and Mauricio introduced themselves properly and started chatting.
Mauricio, it turned out, wasn’t traveling alone. He was flying with several family members, including his mother, to visit his sister, who lived in Nashville, Tennessee.
Mauricio told Catalina he was passionate about music and had worked as a musician for much of his adult life, but he’d recently gone back to college to study psychology.
Catalina had also returned to university a little later in life, switching in her late 20s from a career as an entrepreneur to working in education.
When they realized this common ground, Catalina and Mauricio’s conversation shifted from small talk into something deeper. Mauricio admitted to Catalina that his career change was partly prompted by a rethink of his whole life.
“We started talking about very profound things,” he says today. “I told her I’d been in rehab, I had these problems with drugs and alcohol, and she told me about her life.”
Catalina spoke about her father’s illness, and how difficult the past year had been for her family.
It turned out both Mauricio and Catalina had recently moved back in with their parents – Mauricio after reckoning with addiction issues, and Catalina following her father’s diagnosis.
“We opened up totally, that’s kind of how it started. Not only as a friendship, but a total sincerity since the first moment,” says Mauricio.
“I told her, ‘I don’t have anything, I don’t own anything – I only own a Volkswagen Beetle beat up that my grandmother left me and three guitars.’ We were totally upfront with each other.”
Catalina talked about her 20s and how back then she’d only been focused only on making money. She told Mauricio about how she’d packed it all in, lived in India for a bit and then gone back to college.
“It was like, ‘I don’t know, this guy. I don’t have anything to hide, because he doesn’t know me. I don’t know him. I just can be myself for the next two hours,’” says Catalina.
When the aircraft prepared to land in Orlando, Catalina got out a US SIM card from her bag and switched out the Colombian one in her cell phone.
Mauricio took this opportunity to ask for Catalina’s number. She said yes, giving him her temporary US number, her Colombian cell and her email address. Mauricio scribbled the details down in a small notebook.
Earlier in their conversation, Maurico had mentioned his music, and one song in particular he’d written called “Libre” (“Freedom”).
“Send me that song when you can,” said Catalina, as the aircraft started to descend.
At baggage claim, Mauricio and Catalina stood on opposite sides of the luggage carousel. Catalina’s mother pointed Mauricio out.
“What do you talk about for two hours? I couldn’t sleep,” she said to her daughter. “Who was the guy?”
“He’s going to be the father of my children,” said Catalina. She’d meant it to be a joke, but she realized as she said the words aloud that she meant them seriously.
“Well, if he’s going to be the father of your children, you better go and say a proper goodbye,” said Catalina’s mother.
By then, Mauricio was surrounded by the family who’d been sitting elsewhere on the plane.
“No, that’s so embarrassing,” said Catalina. “He’s with his mom, everybody.”
But because her mother insisted, Catalina eventually relented. She made her way through the crowds to the other side of the carousel. Once there, she introduced herself to Mauricio’s family and gave him a kiss on the cheek to say farewell.
“I think that her mother gave her very good advice,” says Mauricio today. “That was like the deal maker, you know, when she came by and said goodbye.”
In that moment, he became certain their connection hadn’t just been a fleeting, transitory thing.
“I thought, ‘This is a special person,’ ” he says. “I remember my family, they were joking around, ‘Who’s that?’ You know, making fun of me. But that was a key moment for our relationship, I think, when she came by.”
New Year’s wishes
After landing in the United States, Mauricio and his family drove to Tennessee, stopping off in Georgia overnight. During the stopover, he wrote Catalina an email, linking to his song on MySpace.
The next day, Catalina picked up the email and responded right away, sending Mauricio a link to a blog she’d kept up while living in India. These first two emails turned into regular text messages over the next several days.
Catalina was enjoying her time in Orlando and the much-needed escapism provided by Disney World.
But she was still worried about her father and thinking about him all the time.
“I was facing this really heartbreaking situation with my dad. I’m an only child, and I’m very close to my father, and he was very, very sick,” she recalls.
Mauricio was a salve, responding with thoughtful emails.
“I remember that he sent me the link to a Coldplay song, ‘Fix You,’ ” Catalina says. “He said, ‘I know you’re having a hard time, let me fix you.’ And he sent me the link to that song.’ That became our song.”
“It’s a beautiful song,” says Mauricio.
On New Year’s Eve, Mauricio called Catalina just before midnight, offering his best wishes for the New Year.
Catalina was in the middle of Disney World when she picked up the call.
“I’m in Epcot Center, the fireworks show is about to take place, so any minute now I won’t be able to hear you anymore,” she told Mauricio.
“Well, I just wanted to say, Happy New Year, and let’s chat tomorrow,” he said.
When Catalina hung up, her mother asked who’d called.
“The guy from the plane,” said Catalina.
“That’s very meaningful,” said her mother.
On New Year’s Day 2010, Catalina and Mauricio spoke on Skype for several hours. Catalina was in her Disney hotel room, her mother barely out of earshot. Mauricio was at his sister’s house, surrounded by his nieces. Every so often, a family member would pop on the call and wish Catalina “Happy New Year.”
On the call, Mauricio went into more detail on his rehab journey. Catalina listened. At the end of the call, the two made plans to meet up when they were both back in Colombia.
Falling in love
The night Mauricio returned to Bogotá, he went straight to Catalina’s home.
He was nervous.
“The plane was like a neutral place, but Bogotá is our city – the city where we were born and grew up,” he says.
He came bearing gifts – a rubber duck, a candle and some nice soap, the idea being that it was a “relaxation kit,” for Catalina to relieve stress amid the family health crisis.
“I thought it was a little bit suggestive,” says Catalina, laughing.
“But it was not a date,” she adds. “I was not wearing anything special. And he just said, ‘Hey, how are you? I brought you this.’ And we chatted in my room for a while. It was not a date. It was, again, another conversation.”
Their next meet-up was at Mauricio’s mother’s house. Mauricio cooked Catalina dinner, and they continued chatting.
From there, they became serious quickly and naturally.
“Let’s skip all this BS, let’s just be ourselves,’” is how Mauricio describes their courtship.
It turned out Mauricio and Catalina had friends in common, all of whom said they would have never have paired the two together.
“He was an artist, he plays the drums, he was like a hipster – and I was this business woman always wearing heels,” says Catalina.
“If we had met in Bogotá, we wouldn’t have even spoken to each other. Because we were from so different backgrounds, it had to be on a plane, as I said, it’s a neutral place,” says Mauricio.