It was October 2012 and Mae Edilyn Lumba Fortuna had temporarily left behind her busy life in Manila to vacation on the Filipino island of Boracay.
With her friend Ivy in tow, Fortuna spent her evenings out dancing and her days lazing on Boracay’s spectacular White Beach.
This particular morning, Ivy didn’t feel like swimming, but Fortuna couldn’t resist the expanse of glass-like sea stretching out in front of her.
“There’s no wave, it’s very still, very blue,” Fortuna tells CNN Travel today.
After cooling off in the water, Fortuna made her way back onto the sand – “Halle Berry-style, from James Bond,” as she puts it – and saw that Ivy was chatting with a mysterious guy.
As Mae approached, this man introduced himself. He was Jon Takagi, an American physical therapist from Seattle on his first trip to the Philippines.
“Ivy is very gregarious, she started talking to me,” Takagi recalls.
Part of the reason Takagi had chosen Boracay as a travel destination was its sociable vibe – he was vacationing alone, so he was keen to meet fellow travelers.
These two women seemed friendly and fun, so when Ivy asked if he wanted to join them on a sunset boat trip that evening, Takagi said yes.
That evening, as the sky blazed scarlet above them, Fortuna, Takagi and Ivy chatted about their lives and travels.
Afterwards, the group headed out dancing together. It was a blast, and although Fortuna and Ivy were flying back to Manila the following day, they exchanged contact details with Takagi, promising to stay in touch on Facebook.
Ivy wasn’t interested in Takagi romantically, Fortuna explains – her friend was just chatty, and loved to meet new people.
As for Fortuna, she’d really enjoyed hanging out with Takagi, and she thought he was attractive.
“He had abs,” she says now, laughing. “So we’re like, ‘Oh, he’s hot.’”
Still, romance hadn’t really crossed her mind, she just figured he was a fun person to meet.
As for Takagi, he’d been intrigued by Fortuna since he first saw her walking up the sandy beach.
“Everybody wants to say, ‘it was love at first sight.’ I don’t think it was love at first sight. It was interest right away,” he tells CNN Travel today.
Takagi hoped to return to see more of the Philippines, and maybe cross paths with Fortuna again.
A second meeting
Over the next few months, Takagi and Fortuna kept in contact via Facebook.
Fortuna kept expecting the messages to drop off, but she always enjoyed hearing from the American she’d met on the beach.
“I asked Ivy, ‘Why is this guy still communicating with us?’ And then she was like, ‘Oh, just keep on talking to him. Who knows, maybe we’ll go to Seattle, and we’ll have a friend there,’” Fortuna recalls.
Around six months later, in March 2013, Takagi returned to the Philippines. He headed first to the island of Coron, part of the stunning Calamian Islands located southwest of Manila, where he’d arranged to reunite with Fortuna and Ivy, and then back to Boracay.
Fortuna was excited, but she could only join for the first part of the trip – her family is Catholic, and Takagi’s vacation coincided with Holy Week.
The trio had a great time reuniting against the backdrop of Coron’s tropical splendor, enjoying walks on the beach, swimming and snorkeling.
One evening the group went island hopping, splitting the cost of a boat with two American travelers.
It was towards the end of this day that things shifted between Fortuna and Takagi, and she got the first inkling that something else was bubbling under the surface of their friendly interactions.
“One of the guys was hovering over me,” recalls Fortuna.
Takagi stepped in and put his arm around her. They sat like that for some time, under the warm glow of the moon.
Mae was surprised – but happy – about this turn of events.
Back on shore, the group went out to a bar. Fortuna and Takagi danced together, and kissed for the first time.
Ivy was delighted for her friends – and happy to go off on her own adventures – so Fortuna and Takagi explored Coron together.
The two enjoyed long beach walks, chatting about their shared passion for travel. Takagi had spent several months on sabbatical in Thailand not long before, while Fortuna had traveled the world as a flight attendant for five years, as well as worked a stint with Holland America cruise line.
When she met Takagi, Fortuna was a professor of Travel Management, Cultural Tourism and Ecotourism at the University of Santo Tomas.
They both shared a love of dancing, and they were both foodies, with Takagi keen to try Filipino delicacies for the first time. There was a bit of an age difference – Fortuna was in her late 20s and Takagi was in his 40s – but they were on the same page in many ways.
The two bonded over a mutual passion for social issues and a shared drive to help others.
“She’s very kind of forward thinking […] being a teacher and wanting to help people,” Takagi says.
“One of the things that attracted me to her is that she would think about others, and would think about some bigger things.”
Easter weekend was fast approaching, and Fortuna had to say goodbye to Takagi and Ivy, and head home.
But back in her mother’s house in Manila, Fortuna kept thinking about Takagi.
“We’re supposed to pray and I’m supposed to be with my mom. But I sneaked out,” she says.
Fortuna booked the last flight to Boracay. She didn’t tell Takagi she was coming, instead surprising him by unexpectedly knocking on his hotel room door several hours later.
“That’s when I knew,” says Takagi. “That’s when the relationship started.”
Over the next few months. Takagi and Fortuna embarked on a long-distance relationship, keeping in touch via email and Skype.
“We’d watch The Walking Dead together, but via Skype, and we’d be like ‘On the count of three, press play’,” says Fortuna.
“We made it work, and then the biggest thing was we continually had plans,” says Takagi.
On one occasion the two traveled to the Filipino island of Bohol, home to the Chocolate Hills, and then to Oslob, to swim with whale sharks.
Towards the end of 2013, Takagi and Fortuna visited El Nido, on Palawan, known for its incredible white sandy beaches.
As time went on, their relationship became more serious. On visits to the Philippines, Takagi met Fortuna’s family, while Fortuna met Jon’s loved ones via Skype.
The two started making plans for Fortuna to come and stay with Jon in the US in the spring of 2014.
The trip wasn’t necessarily a permanent move, but the couple wanted to see how Fortuna liked the US, and whether she could imagine a life for herself there with Takagi. Fortuna had a US tourist visa from her time as a flight attendant, so she could stay for a little while.
As Takagi points out, because they’d traveled a lot with one another, they’d spent a lot of time essentially living together in hotels.
But this wasn’t a vacation, so it still felt a bit different, especially as Takagi was working during the week, and Fortuna wasn’t.
She passed the time in his apartment, feeling a bit listless.
“It’s like my life was paused,” she says now.
But when the couple mutually decided the move should be permanent, and Fortuna applied for an immigrant visa, she was able to start working, and started to feel more settled in the US. It helped that she’d brought her beloved dog Heidi along with her.
Takagi had long intended to ask Fortuna to marry him, but Fortuna wasn’t into the idea of waiting for him to get around to asking.
“I asked Jon point blank if he is going to marry me or not because I have a life in Manila and a teaching job waiting for me at the University,” says Fortuna.
The couple were married in September 2014, a small civil wedding at a courthouse in Seattle.
A few years later, they enjoyed a big church celebration in Manila.
Moving to the US and leaving her loved ones in the Philippines wasn’t easy, says Fortuna.
But she says her family love Takagi, and supported the decision – luckily, Fortuna’s mom had long forgiven him for being the reason her daughter had abandoned the family that Easter.
Plus, Fortuna and Takagi continued to travel extensively, whether it was returning to the Philippines to see Fortuna’s family and go scuba diving – they’re both now PADI certified – or exploring the US, from the beaches of Maui to hiking the Grand Canyon.
They also visited Minidoka, Idaho, where Japanese Americans were interned during the Second World War.
Takagi is Japanese American, and Fortuna was shocked and heartbroken to learn about this aspect of US history.
Today, Fortuna draws a comparison to the racist attacks against Asian Americans that have taken place during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“With the current racism and violence against Asian Americans I hope that when people read our story they will realize that we are just like everyone else,” says Fortuna.
“We’re entitled to the American pursuit of happiness too, like everyone, regardless of color or race.”
For Fortuna and Takagi, it’s also important to build a better world for their child – in November 2020, their son Joseph was born.
It was a journey to get there in more ways than one.
Joseph was conceived via IVF. And when the Covid-19 pandemic hit Seattle, Fortuna was pregnant and Takagi was working at a hospital.
It was an intense time, and the couple also found it tough not being able to see Fortuna’s family in the Philippines.
But the past few months have also been filled with joy, as Fortuna and Takagi welcomed Joseph into the world and started building out their life as a family of three.
The couple are planning to fly out to the Philippines in January 2022, to enjoy a long-delayed family reunion. Their long-term plan is to retire there.
For now, they’re staying put, but they’re excited to instill their love of adventure in Joseph.
After all, a thirst for travel is what brought them together in the first place.
“You open yourself up to meeting people,” says Takagi. “I think it was meant to be.”
“How many people get to meet their spouse on the beach?” says Fortuna. “Looking back, our story is amazing.”