Now in her early thirties, Irja was exhausted from a long summer navigating layoffs at her workplace, and dealing with some challenges in her personal life.This was the time to go for it, Irja decided, she was going to take those vacation days and enjoy that dream trip.
"I was fairly experienced and fairly seasoned as a traveler and everything else. But the prospect of me landing in Mexico City around 10 p.m., in a city of 20-plus million inhabitants, not speaking Spanish, was not very attractive," Irja tells CNN Travel today.
Marcus was thinking of his old high school friend, Jesús Estrella Jurado. Marcus gave Jesús a call and asked if he'd be able to meet Irja at the airport.Calling abroad was costly, so Marcus just relayed the key details: her name's Irja, she's from Finland, she lives in New York City, these are her flight details -- and she'll be landing in a few days.Jesús said yes right away. Sure, he didn't know much about Irja -- and Marcus hadn't given him much notice -- but he wanted to help out his friend.
Irja, meanwhile, was exhausted. She'd gone straight from work to the airport, but as soon she was introduced to Jesús, she felt comfortable in his presence. "He seems kind," she remembers thinking. There was a kind of decency about him, she says, that she warmed to right away.Jesús asked Irja if she was hungry. He working two jobs at the time, as a dentist and part time for his family's business, and he'd just finished for the day was keen to grab a bite to eat.
"I was enjoying her conversation," says Jesús. "But also, I was enjoying the way she was showing me her eyes. They were beautiful, shiny eyes."I was not fully aware that I was in love," he adds. "But definitely that was the driving force."
Jesús suggested that, rather than checking into a hotel, Irja could stay at his brother's apartment, which was currently unoccupied.Looking back, Irja says she's conscious she took a risk, trusting someone who was essentially a stranger."Here I am, in a strange city, in a part of the world that I have never visited before, it's the middle of the night here, am I doing something that's safe? Or is this really foolish?" she says today."But at the same time, I thought that we had a mutual friend, that both of us were very close with. And then I just kind of said to myself: 'Well, I guess you have to trust people, you have to be careful, but at the same time, you cannot lose all the trust.'"
When Jesús got to the airport and he couldn't find Irja anywhere, he had no way of contacting her. Increasingly worried he'd missed her, he approached the airport staff and asked if they'd make an announcement over the overhead speaker.Finally, he found her with minutes to spare. Irja and Jesús said goodbye and promised to keep in touch, but neither of them had any expectations."The last thing that at that point in my life that I wanted to have was a man in my life, let alone a long-distance relationship," says Irja.
Irja and Jesús continued to send letters back and forth, and also speak on the phone on occasion, but the communication remained sporadic."There was no email, obviously no FaceTime, no texting," says Irja. "The mail between New York and Mexico City was a little erratic too. And the best you could do was just call long distance -- and I still remember very distinctly that it used to cost about 90 US cents per minute."
In November 1991, three months after Irja's trip to Mexico, an opportunity arose for Jesús to visit New York for work.He was so excited at the idea of seeing Irja again. He decided to frame the trip as a "complete surprise" and only tell her he was in New York after he'd arrived. He stopped communicating with Irja in the lead-up to his visit to add to the surprise.But from Irja's perspective, Jesús had just stopped calling her. She was confused -- and when she found out he was in New York, it was the last thing she expected.
While Irja spent some of vacation touring alone, the two also enjoyed exploring together. Jesús prepared authentic Mexican tamales for Irja, and showed her his favorite spots in the city.And they traveled together to Taxco, a city known for its architecture and rugged mountainous surrounds."It's very popular with tourists, an old silver mining town," says Irja. "And it's very romantic. Like, you know, if you are supposed to fall in love, that's probably the place.""The trip was, I think, a big success," says Jesús, recalling driving through the mountains with Irja and admiring Taxco's beauty."I guess that's what you would call like a turning point," says Irja."After that, things were a little more solid," agrees Jesús.
The year before, Irja endured some health issues, and her parents, who already liked the sound of Jesús, were irrevocably won round when they found out how he'd been there for her during this tough time."He was the one who was at my side and supported me through that experience," says Irja.
They'd bought rings together on a return trip to Taxco earlier that year. At the time, they hadn't had a wedding date fixed, but it seemed like the perfect opportunity."Taxco is a famous silver mining town where they sell all kinds of silver items including jewelery with local stones," says Irja. "The thought was something like 'we are here in this perfect place, so we might as well buy rings in case we should need them any time in the future.'"
"Because I met Irja I came to New York and I started a new life here under conditions that I didn't imagine," says Jesús. "But certainly, I can tell you that feeling, that you feel inside -- it makes life beautiful anywhere."The couple happily settled into their New York life together and a few years later welcomed a daughter, Erica."We chose a name that works in Finland, Mexico and in the United States," says Irja.
Today, Irja and Jesús still live in New York, they both work in hospitals in the city and run the photo and video business part time on the side.Jesús works in hospital patient relations. Irja -- now fluent in Spanish as well as Finnish, English and Swedish -- works in translation services for her hospital.
The family have also spent time in Finland and traveled together in Europe."Travel gives you a different perspective, a perspective on your own culture, but also, I think it kind of opens up your mind," says Irja, adding it was important to the couple to pass on their wanderlust to Erica."The story of how they met and their relationship in general definitely makes me believe in true love, kind of like a fairytale romance type," says Erica, who is in her early 20s and studied tourism and hospitality at college."I also think it's very unique and fascinating how two people from opposite sides of the world came to meet and have a daughter who is half Mexican and half Finnish," she adds. "I consider myself cool and unique for that reason!"
"Even though we have differences, it's so nice to be together, and just keep enjoying the feeling that make us decide to be together, hopefully for many years in the future," says Jesús."Life keeps just being so generous, so wonderful. So that's my feeling -- is being thankful for that."