They met on an airport layover and fell in love


(CNN) — August 1991. Irja Uotila, a Finnish publishing employee living in New York, decided to finally fulfill a long-held dream of visiting Latin America.

She’d fantasized about traveling through the region’s archaeological sites and picturesque towns ever since she was a teenager growing up in Finland, poring over travel brochures and daydreaming about future adventures.

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.

She wanted a vacation where she could relax, but also get to know the culture and history of the destination. After extensive research, Irja pinpointed Oaxaca, Mexico as the perfect spot.

There was only one issue. There were no direct flights from New York City to Oaxaca City, so she’d have to change flights in Mexico City and stay overnight.

“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.

She discussed her vacation plans with friends, including Marcus, a former coworker of Irja’s who’d grown up in Mexico.

“I do have this friend,” she recalls Marcus saying. “You know, he was here in New York recently. Maybe he can help you out.”

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.

“I don’t know who’s coming, but I’ll do my best,” he recalls thinking, spelling out Irja’s name on a homemade sign and buying a bouquet of flowers to present her with upon her arrival.

When Irja stepped through the crowds at Mexico City Airport arrivals, Jesús was struck by her right away. “Just her smile, her eyes,” he recalls now.

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.

Irja was ready for some food too, so they headed to a nearby restaurant.

Irja met Jesús traveling to Oaxaca, Mexico. Here she is exploring the archaeological site of Monte Albán that August 1991.

Courtesy Irja Uotila-Estrella

They started chatting in the car, and the conversation continued to flow in the restaurant. They talked about Mexico, about New York and Finland, their mutual friend Marcus and their travels.

“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.”

It was late when they got to the restaurant, and it was later still when they finished up.

They’d only known each other a few hours, but the tiredness they’d both felt earlier had dissipated, and they wanted to continue their conversation.

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.'”

The next day, Jesús gave Irja a lift back to the airport. On the way, he stopped off at his family’s business where Irja met his mother and brother.

Back at the airport, Irja and Jesús said goodbye, hoping to cross paths a week later, when Irja would be connecting back through Mexico City to return home.

“I did go to Oaxaca City, which I think is still one of my best travel experiences,” says Irja.

Despite her excitement at having met Jesús, someone she’d clicked with immediately, she was really glad to be vacationing on her own after a tough summer.

“I think it was very healing,” she says.

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Irja took of Jesús before they said goodbye at Mexico City Airport in August 1991.

Courtesy Irja Uotila-Estrella

On her way back to New York, Jesús and Irja tried to meet again, but they almost missed one another.

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.

But before she left, she snapped a photo of Jesús. She wanted to remember him.

And when she got home, she sent him a thank you card.

“I kept it,” says Jesús, who wrote her back, sending a postcard adorned with pictures of other parts of Mexico.

On the back, he wrote that if she ever made it back, he’d love to show her around the country.

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.”

A surprise gone wrong

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.

“I think I literally got a call from our mutual friend saying like, ‘Oh, you know, Jesús is in town, would you like for the three of us to get together?'”

Irja agreed but wasn’t sure what to think.

When Jesús and Marcus came round to Irja’s apartment, it quickly became clear to Jesús his plan was a bad one.

“Oh my God, I remember going back to my friend’s house, because I stayed overnight with him, and I was so miserable,” he says.

Back in Mexico, worried he’d blown it, Jesús was relieved when he got a phone call from Irja that Thanksgiving.

“I didn’t think that encounter was quite so negative,” says Irja. “I was just surprised.”

Since returning to New York, Irja had started taking Spanish lessons and reading piles of books on Mexico’s history and culture.

“I had certainly fallen in love with Mexico after being in Oaxaca — definitely Mexico, wasn’t so sure about [him],” says Irja.

She decided to plan another trip for January 1992, this time staying for 10 days.

“That time around, I actually did build Mexico City into it intentionally,” she adds.

Irja and Jesus (2)

In 1992 Irja returned to Mexico and traveled with Jesús to Taxco, a picturesque city southwest of Mexico City. This trip was a turning point for the couple.

Courtesy Irja Uotila-Estrella

Over the course of Irja’s January 1992 trip, Irja and Jesús finally had the opportunity to build on the connection that had first sparked at Mexico City Airport.

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 couple returned to their respective homes determined to make a long-distance relationship work.

Long distance romance

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Embarking on a long-distance relationship, Jesús and Irja traveled back and forth from Mexico to the US to see one another. Here they are in Philadelphia in summer 1992.

Courtesy Irja Uotila-Estrella

In March, Irja traveled to Mexico, meeting up with Jesús for a long weekend that coincided with her birthday.

“That was the first time I went to the house of Frida Kahlo, and it happened to be under renovation,” she recalls.

When they arrived at the Blue House, the couple were told the museum was closed.

Jesús stepped in. “She’s come a long way,” he said. “And she’s a fan, can you please let her in?”

“They did, so I got my little private tour,” says Irja.

A few months later, in May 1992, Jesús came to New York. “Of course, she was waiting for me at the airport,” he recalls with a smile.

In between the trips, the couple saved up for long-distance phone calls and flights. This back-and-forth defined their relationship for the next few years, but Jesús spent increasingly long stints in New York.

Of course Irja had met some of Jesús’s family in Mexico during their very first encounter, but the couple didn’t travel to Finland to meet Irja’s family until 1994.

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.

Their friends were also happy for them, particularly Marcus, the friend who’d brought them together.

In December 1995, Irja and Jesús were married in a civil ceremony, followed by a small religious ceremony the year after.

Irja and Jesus (1)

In December 1995, Irja and Jesus got married in a civil ceremony and then enjoyed a modest church wedding in September 1996 in New York City, pictured here.

Courtesy Irja Uotila-Estrella

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.'”

Irja, who’d lived in New York for several years, had a US Green Card. Following their marriage, Jesús went through a long US immigration process.

Then the couple could finally be together in the same country, permanently. But this wasn’t without its difficulties.

“We went through that whole process of somebody coming from another country as a professional, and then running into all these hurdles — how you have to go back to school, kind of requalify yourself,” recalls Irja.

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Irja and Jesús have a daughter, Erica. Here they are at a family renion in Irja’s hometown of Hämeenlinna, Finland, in August 2001.

Courtesy Irja Uotila-Estrella

Jesús abandoned dentistry after discovering he’d have to retrain for several years before practicing in the United States. Instead, he started a photo and video business.

“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.

30 years later

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In December 2020, Irja and Jesús celebrated their silver wedding anniversary amid Covid-19 restrictions. 2021 also marks 30 years since they met at Mexico City Airport.

Courtesy Irja Uotila-Estrella

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.

“Both of us have gone through the nightmare of Covid-19 in New York City,” says Irja.

But the two are thankful for the support they’ve shown each other throughout the past year.

“I think that has been one of the strongest experiences that we’ve had together,” says Irja.

In 2021, Irja and Jesús will celebrate 30 years since they met at Mexico City Airport, and 25 years since they celebrated their marriage in New York.

In the intervening decades they’ve visited Taxco many times, including with daughter Erica. They also enjoyed returning to the Frida Kahlo Museum with Erica in tow.

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!”

“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”

Erica, Jesús and Irja’s daughter

Thirty years since they first met, both Irja and Jesús still enjoy learning new things about each other — both the good and the not so good, they say, laughing.

And while the couple often look back on the magic coincidence of their first encounter, they’re also looking forward to the future.

“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.”



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