What happened when two strangers went on vacation together


(CNN) — Rodrigo Leal and Irma Cáceres were working at the same company in Mexico City for two years before they crossed paths.

And when they finally met, it wasn’t at an office-wide meeting, or while making coffee in their workplace kitchen — it was to plan an international vacation together.

It was the spring of 2011 and 31-year-old Rodrigo was looking forward to visiting family in Finland later that year.

He was treating the summer trip to Scandinavia as an opportunity to explore Europe and he’d booked some extra vacation time before and after the family reunion.

While traveling solo was an option, Rodrigo figured it’d be more fun to go with someone else. But when Rodrigo told his friends about the trip — asking around to see if anyone fancied joining — no one was up for it. Friends either already had alternative summer plans or didn’t want to take the time off work.

On his lunch break one day, Rodrigo was talking about the dilemma to a close work friend, Paola.

She paused.

“Wait, I think I know the perfect person,” Rodrigo recalls Paola saying. “She’s used to traveling alone, she loves adventures…I can introduce you right now — she also works here.”

This “perfect person” was Irma Cáceres: a 29-year-old salesperson at the company who rarely turned down the opportunity to explore a new destination.

Paola marched Rodrigo across the office and made the introduction.

After the first hellos, Rodrigo told Irma about the vacation, and asked if she’d like to join.

Irma said yes right away.

“It wasn’t an instant connection,” Rodrigo tells CNN Travel today.

Still, Rodrigo realized right away that he and Irma had a shared drive for adventure, and he was intrigued.

For Irma, that evident shared passion was what prompted her to accept the invite. Plus, she and Rodrigo had Paola in common, and Irma trusted Paola’s judgment.

Rodirgo and Irma met the next day for a preliminary chat about plans. Rodrigo explained that two of his siblings lived in Finland, and all his family were flying out for a few days, but he was hoping to tack on some extra European travel.

Irma was excited, but when she told her friends, many of them were concerned.

“Who is he? What are his intentions? Be careful,” she recalls them saying.

But her mother, whose opinion she valued most, relented from voicing an opinion until she’d seen a photo of Rodrigo.

Irma showed her mother Rodrigo’s Facebook profile photo.

“She just looked at it and she said: ‘You should go with him,'” Irma recalls today.

It was decided, Irma was going on vacation with a virtual stranger.

Vacation planning

Rodrigo-Irma-2011_France

Rodrigo and Irma worked at the same company, but they’d never crossed paths before.

Courtesy Rodrigo Leal

The two co-workers started meeting whenever they could to discuss travel plans.

“We were very work-centric at the office, so we did touch base for some 10 minutes at a time and then, back to work,” recalls Rodrigo.

While the interactions were brief, Rodrigo and Irma gradually realized they approached trip-planning in similar ways. They were keen to book flights and sort out key logistics ASAP but they were happy to leave other decisions, such as accommodation, until nearer the time.

And during discussions about rental cars and what cities to add to their itinerary, they both became aware of how much they were enjoying one another’s company.

A few months passed by and these conversations continued to solely take place at work, so Rodrigo decided to ask Irma if she would be up for meeting one evening.

“I’m busy, I’ve got many other commitments,” was Irma’s response.

Rodrigo took this answer to mean Irma wasn’t interested in the friendship turning into anything more, but Irma recalls being genuinely busy.

“I initially turned him down because I had previous engagements with my friends and family and didn’t want to change or cancel those plans,” she says today.

Two weeks before Rodrigo and Irma were due to embark on their trip, Rodrigo planned a house party. He’d invited all his friends, and many of his colleagues.

At the office, Irma heard rumblings about the gathering and realized she hadn’t been invited.

This was because Rodrigo wasn’t quite sure where they stood, and didn’t want to overstep a line, but Irma was confused.

The next time the two met to discuss the trip, she decided to ask him about the party directly.

“Am I invited to that as well?” she asked.

“Do you need two invitations? Or just one?” responded Rodrigo.

“[He was] indirectly asking me if I was going to attend with someone, which of course wasn’t the case,” says Irma today.

“Just one,” she recalls responding.

That Saturday, Irma was the first guest to arrive at Rodrigo’s gathering — “that’s something we both have in common, we always need to be on time,” she says today.

She helped him prepare set up for the evening, and they chatted as they emptied chips in bowls.

The other guests gradually arrived, settling in for an evening of card-playing and movie-watching. When the electricity suddenly went out, the partygoers used their cell phone torches to peer at one another through the dark.

Rodrigo and Irma say the connection between them was obvious that evening.

“The only thing that we needed for things to happen, for sparks to fly, was to meet outside of the office, because all the times we were meeting in a meeting room and in the hallways,” says Rodrigo.

“Lightning struck,” says Irma.

The next day, they arranged to meet again. Ostensibly, it was to confirm last-minute trip details. But they were both curious to see if their connection was still there in the light of the day.

It was.

And a few days later, Rodrigo formally asked Irma to be his girlfriend.

He’s old-fashioned like that, he says. Plus, he wanted to confirm where they were at before they headed abroad.

Delighted, Irma said yes.

“I felt very happy. I could not believe it. He was very romantic,” she recalls.

The two were heading to the airport in a few days. Their international trip was to be their first official date.

First stop: Paris

Rodrigo-Irma-2011_Paris

Irma and Rodrigo in Paris, the first stop on their European adventure.

Courtesy Rodrigo Leal

The first leg of their trip was flying from Mexico City to Paris for a couple days. Both Irma and Rodrigo recall feeling nervous as they headed to the airport.

Irma remembers realizing she’d forgotten to pack any pajamas, she had to grab some en route.

Meanwhile, they both recall a moment at the airport when Rodrigo commented on some fellow travelers speaking French, and how beautiful the language sounded — only for Irma to point out that these people were speaking English.

“He turned all red,” says Irma. “It was hilarious.”

But when their flight touched down in Paris, the couple relaxed.

“We took the subway to Place de la Concorde and from there started walking towards the Eiffel Tower,” recalls Rodrigo.

They ignored the jet lag and embraced the romance and beauty of the French capital, with detours to see Monet’s garden at Giverny and the palace of Versailles.

After Paris, the couple flew to London, rented a car, and embarked on a British road trip.

It was Rodrigo’s first time driving on the left side of the road, while Irma says she was the “copilot.”

“We managed to survive the road trip from London to Edinburgh without scratching the car. He only took three times to get out of a roundabout and didn’t get any tickets.”

En route to the Scottish capital Irma and Rodrigo stopped off at famous prehistoric landmark Stonehenge, as well as the English cities of Salisbury, Oxford, Nottingham — where Rodrigo had studied abroad — and York.

Their evening in the Scottish capital coincided with Rodrigo’s birthday, and the couple stayed up all night enjoying pints and celebrating.

Rodrigo-Irma-2011_Stonehenge

Here they are in Stonehenge, one of the stops on the couple’s UK roadtrip.

Courtesy Rodrigo Leal

The next day, the two flew to Helsinki for Rodrigo’s family reunion.

After the fun of the past few days, their mutual nervousness returned.

When Rodrigo had told his family he was bringing a friend along, they were delighted, pleased he wouldn’t be traveling alone.

“But when I told them, ‘I’m going to go with my girlfriend,’ it was a whole different story,” says Rodrigo.

His loved ones were happy for him, he explains, but a bit skeptical about the situation.

Irma was also nervous about meeting Rodrigo’s loved ones, but her anxiety quickly dissipated when they arrived in Finland. Rodrigo’s family welcomed her with open arms.

If they had hesitations about the unusual travel arrangements, they didn’t share them.

“It was easy for me because Rodrigo was very kind, and his family’s very, very kind,” she says.

The group spent five days in Helsinki before boarding a ferry to Tallinn to explore the Estonian capital. It was great fun, Rodrigo says, and hanging out all together felt totally natural.

After saying their farewells to Rodrigo’s family in Finland, Rodrigo and Irma headed back to London. They’d arranged to meet Irma’s aunt and uncle, who happened to live there, at a restaurant overlooking the Thames and Tower Bridge.

“They put Rodrigo on the high chair and interrogated him about his intentions. He passed the test,” says Irma.

“It was our final night before going back to Paris the next day, early as usual, but that didn’t stop the Champagne from flowing,” adds Rodrigo.

From Paris, the couple returned home to Mexico. At the airport, Irma’s mother was waiting to pick the two up and drop them off at their respective homes.

But little did she know that Irma and Rodrigo had made an important decision while abroad — after two weeks spending every moment together, neither of them wanted to be apart.

“It was on the tram trip to the Helsinki airport after saying goodbye to the family and being alone again that we first started discussing living together,” recalls Rodrigo. “We both thought it was the way to go. We wanted to be together. Right there and then. It was the right choice.”

Irma’s mom was surprised, as were the rest of Irma’s family.

“They told me I was very crazy — I am,” says Irma, laughing.

But she adds that when her loved ones realized how determined she was — and how happy Rodrigo made her — they were happy for her in turn.

Rodrigo-Irma-2011_Mexico_Tula

The couple photographed back in Mexico, exploring Tula.

Courtesy Rodrigo Leal

Still, the couple decided to keep their living arrangements on the down low.

“We drove to the office in separate cars. And only the closest family knew we were living together,” says Rodrigo. “We released the news to the world maybe a couple months later.”

Cue more shock, but also more celebration: the couple had also decided to get married.

After their globetrotting summer of adventures, Rodrigo kept the proposal more intimate. He planned a scavenger hunt in their home, culminating in Irma discovering the ring.

The couple don’t recall any major disagreements or difficult moments as they adjusted to life together — the only wobble was right before their wedding, at a stressful photo shoot.

“We were both very nervous, with a lot of pressure. And that almost led to a ‘Runaway Bride’ episode,” says Rodrigo. “But we both stuck in. We endured.”

In 2012, the two got married in Zacatecas City, Mexico. They recall a beautiful day, made only more special because of the unexpected rain.

“We were just very happy to have all the family and friends coming together,” says Rodrigo. “It was a very nice night, even though it was pouring cats and dogs.”

Among the attendees was Rodrigo and Irma’s mutual friend Paola, the co-worker who’d brought them together and suggested they travel together. The couple remain close to her today.

“I always tell her, ‘You are the guilty one for getting us together, because we are very, very happy,'” says Rodrigo, laughing.

Rodrigo-Irma-2012_Bora Bora (2)

Here are Irma and Rodrigo on their Honeymoon in Bora Bora, French Polynesia.

Courtesy Rodrigo Leal

After the wedding, the couple headed to the islands of French Polynesia for a dreamy honeymoon. Rodrigo and Irma then spent the next few years ticking off must-sees across Mexico, the US and Europe — from island-hopping in Greece to admiring the splendor of Lake Como in Italy.

In 2015, their first child was born, Sofía. She joined the couple on many of their subsequent adventures.

“Before Sofía was one year old, she was traveling almost every month on a plane,” says Rodrigo.

Two years later, the couple had a son, also called Rodrigo.

Rodrigo-Irma-2013_Italy_Como Lake

In 2013, Rodrigo and Irma went island-hopping in Greece.

Courtesy Rodrigo Leal

In 2019, Rodrigo and Irma returned to Finland with their young children in tow, a trip that included a stop-off at Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland.

“It was another amazing, amazing experience,” says Rodrigo.

Rodrigo and Irma’s passion for traveling underlines their relationship, but the couple also enjoy the quieter moments at home, something that’s been important this past year during the pandemic.

“We both love each other and love our kids. We have the same goals in common and we are always there for the other. We can talk about anything and nothing. We laugh a lot. We love to watch movies, corny Latin telenovelas, and strange series,” says Rodrigo.

“We complement each other. We are very alike but also very different, and we believe that’s a very important part of the recipe.”

‘It was destiny’

Rodrigo-Irma-2019_Bath

The couple started bringing their kids along on their adventures. Here are the family on vacation in 2019, in Bath, England.

Courtesy Rodrigo Leal

It was some years into their marriage before Rodrigo and Irma discovered they were both pictured in the same group photo from a colleague’s party, back in 2009.

In the photo, they’re on opposite ends of the group, completely unaware of each other.

While this coincidence suggests Irma and Rodrigo could have met even if they hadn’t gone traveling together — they did work in the same office, after all — they both credit their relationship, and subsequent years of happiness, to their willingness to vacation with someone who was essentially a stranger.

Now that they have kids, people often ask if they’d let their children do the same thing, and they both say no, partly kidding, partly genuinely horrified at the thought.

But they do think vacationing with a partner is a great way of figuring out if you’re really compatible.

“You eat, you sightsee, all together, all the time. It’s very different than just maybe dating,” says Rodrigo. “It really helped us to know each other. And well, that’s what we want for the rest of our lives.”

“I think it was destiny to be together,” says Irma. “I’m very, very happy to have met Rodrigo. We are a great couple and I’m in love with him.”



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