(CNN) — For Catalina Bernal Andrade, Christmas 2009 was unusual in more ways than one. That year, her father had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Catalina, then 31 years old, had returned to her family’s home in Bogotá, Colombia, to help them during treatment.
Christmas arrived and Catalina and her family celebrated as best they could, despite the harsh circumstances. In Colombia, the main festive celebrations take place on December 24, and staying up all night is quite common. Catalina and her family enjoyed a Christmas Eve full of drinks, dinners and festivities.
After 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 New Years.
“She was undergoing chemotherapy and very, very harsh treatment. So she wanted us—my mother and I—to take a vacation,” Catalina told CNN Travel today. “We both decided we were going to Disney World, that it was a fun place to spend a week.”
Catalina and her mother boarded the JetBlue flight to Orlando, Florida, and settled into their seats: Catalina in the center, her mother in the aisle, and a stranger at the window.
Over the loudspeaker, the captain wished the passengers “Merry Christmas.” Catalina looked around her and guessed that most of the travelers were on their way to visit her family in the United States.
“I remember people with a lot of hand luggage, with bags full of gifts,” says Catalina.
There were several family groups, but the passenger in Catalina’s window seemed to be traveling alone. He was a man, probably in his 30s, sitting quietly reading and wearing headphones. Catalina appreciated that he was so reserved.
“I was chatting with my mother about how hard the previous months had been and about the need to take some time to relax before the upcoming operations my father was going to undergo,” she recalls.
The flight took off and, shortly after, Catalina’s mother fell asleep. In fact, most of the passengers were napping, apparently deprived of sleep from the previous day’s celebrations.
After a couple of hours into the flight, the flight attendant gave Catalina a US immigration form to fill out. As of 2009, these forms had not yet been digitized.
“I was alone filling out those forms and I didn’t know the flight number. So I turned to the guy sitting next to me,” Catalina recalls.
A bit awkward, aware that she was interrupting him, Catalina caught his attention.
“He was connected to his iPod. So I said, ‘Hi, sorry, can you tell me the flight number?’
The stranger in the window seat removed a single earphone from his ear.
“123,” he replied, and put the receiver back on, abruptly, going back to his book.
Catalina filled out the forms, one for her and one for her mother. But later, reading them, she realized that she had made a mistake.
He tore them up, asked the flight attendant for new ones, and started again.
Now, very nervous, she had already forgotten the flight number. She turned back to the man sitting next to her.
“Hello, I’m very sorry to bother you. Could you remind me of the flight number again?” he asked.
This time, to Catalina’s surprise, the stranger was more friendly.
“Yes, of course,” he said, this time taking out both headphones.
The stranger had his plane 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 on it, out loud. From there, Catalina and Mauricio introduced themselves properly and began to chat.
Mauricio, it turned out, was not traveling alone. He was flying with several members of his family, including his mother, to visit his sister, who lived in Nashville, Tennessee.
Mauricio told Catalina that he was passionate about music and that he had worked as a musician for much of his adult life, but had recently returned to university to study psychology.
Catalina had also gone back to college a few years earlier, having transitioned from being an entrepreneur to working in education in her late 20s.
When they realized this common ground, the conversation between Catalina and Mauricio went from small talk to something deeper. Mauricio admitted to Catalina that her career change was partly due to a rethinking of her entire life.
“We started talking about very deep things,” he says today. “I told her that she had been in rehab, that she had problems with drugs and alcohol, and she told me about her life.”
Catalina talked about her father’s illness and how difficult the last year had been for her family.
It turned out that both Mauricio and Catalina had recently returned to live with their parents: Mauricio after overcoming his addiction problems and Catalina after her father’s diagnosis.
“We totally opened up, that’s how it started. Not just as a friendship, but a total sincerity from the first moment,” says Mauricio.
“I told him, ‘I don’t have anything, I don’t own anything…I just have a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle that my grandmother left me and three guitars.’ We were totally frank with each other.”
Catalina talked about how in her 20s she had only focused on making money. She told Mauricio how she had left everything, she had lived for a while in India and then she had returned to the university.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know, this guy. I have nothing to hide, because he doesn’t know me. I don’t know him. I can be myself for the next two hours,'” Catalina says.
When the plane was preparing to land in Orlando, Catalina took an American SIM card from her bag and changed the Colombian one on her cell phone.
Mauricio took the opportunity to ask for his number. She agreed and gave him her temporary US number, her Colombian phone number, and her email address. Mauricio wrote down the data in a small notebook.
Early in the conversation, Mauricio had mentioned his music and a particular song he had written called “Libre”.
“Send me that song when you can,” said Catalina, as the plane began to descend.
At the place where the suitcases were collected, Mauricio and Catalina were on opposite sides of the carousel. Catalina’s mother pointed to Mauricio.
“What did they talk about for two hours? I couldn’t sleep,” he told his daughter. “Who was the guy?”
“He’s going to be the father of my children,” Catalina said. She had said it jokingly, but as she said the words out loud she realized that she meant it.
“Well, if he’s going to be the father of your children, you’d better say goodbye properly,” said Catalina’s mother.
By then, Mauricio was surrounded by the family who had been sitting in another part of the plane.
“No, what a shame,” said Catalina. “She’s with her mom, with everyone.”
But since her mother insisted, Catalina ended up giving in. She made her way through the crowd to the other side of the carousel. Once there, she introduced herself to Mauricio’s family and kissed him on the cheek to say goodbye to her.
“I think his mother gave him very good advice,” Mauricio says today. “That was like the tipping point, when she came over and said goodbye to her.”
In that moment, he was certain that their connection had not been just fleeting and transient.
“I thought, ‘He’s a special person,'” he says. “I remember my family joking: ‘Who is it?’ You know, making fun of me. But that was a pivotal moment for our relationship, I think, when she came over.”
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After landing in the United States, Mauricio and his family drove to Tennessee, stopping in Georgia overnight. During the layover, he wrote Catalina an email, with a link to her song on her MySpace.
The next day, Catalina saw the email and responded immediately, sending Mauricio a link to a blog she had kept while living in India. These first two emails became regular text messages over the next few days.
Catalina was enjoying her stay in Orlando and the necessary escape that Disney World provided.
But she was still worried about her father and couldn’t stop thinking about him.
“I was facing a really heartbreaking situation with my father. I am an only child and I am very close to my father, who was very, very sick,” she recalls.
Mauricio was a balm, responding with thoughtful emails.
“I remember he sent me the link to a Coldplay song, ‘Fix You,'” says Catalina. “She told me, ‘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.