James Sanford was sitting on a bench at Punta Cana International Airport in the Dominican Republic, waiting for his bag to appear on the luggage carousel.
It was August 2013, and Atlanta-based James, then in his late 20s, was in the Dominican Republic with his best friend to attend Pride celebrations.
The two friends were waiting for their luggage, chatting about the weekend of partying and celebrating that lay ahead, when James looked up and saw a stranger walking towards them.
“He had on like, the shortest shorts,” James tells CNN Travel, laughing. “It caught my attention.”
“I turn to my best friend and I’m like, ‘Who’s that guy in those shorts?’”
The guy in the shorts was Daron Fowler, a 32-year-old who, by coincidence, was also from Atlanta.
Also by coincidence – Daron was in town to attend the same Pride event as James.
“He just so happened to come and sit beside us,” recalls James. “And so I sparked up a conversation. I don’t usually initiate conversations, but something was just saying, ‘Say hey.’”
When Daron sat down next to James, he wasn’t looking to chat.
“I was just kind of getting my bearings,” Daron tells CNN Travel. “I think at that point in my life, I dealt with a lot of social anxiety. So me coming to this event was a really big step.
“And so I sat down and he started flirting with me. And I’m like, ‘Oh, he’s cute, but I’ve got to get my social battery, for lack of a better expression, ready.’”
Despite Daron’s hesitation, the two introduced themselves and started chatting. In a short back and forth, they realized they were both based in Atlanta, and both in the Dominican Republic for Pride.
Then James’ bag appeared, so he got up to leave. He said goodbye to Daron, wondering if they’d meet again.
But there were lots of other people at the event, and over the course of the weekend James and Daron didn’t directly cross paths.
“We didn’t exchange information or anything. I just knew his name,” says James.
The two caught sight of one another from afar a handful of times. And neither of them forgot the other.
“I remembered him for the rest of the trip,” says Daron.
An Atlanta reunion
A few weeks later, Daron was back home in Atlanta and hosting a friend from New Jersey for the weekend.
The two went out to a club and there, by coincidence, was James.
Even more coincidentally, it turned out that Daron’s New Jersey-based friend knew James already.
“The mutual friend introduces us, not knowing that we’ve met in DR,” says James. “So I was like, ‘Wow, hi, so we meet again.”
James and Daron picked up the conversation where they’d left off at the airport. And this time, they exchanged numbers.
“Then I saw him throughout the weekend, because we were kind of running the same circles going to the same events that weekend,” says Daron.
Over the next few months, James and Daron remained in one another’s orbit, occasionally crossing paths at events and parties.
“The last time we saw each other, I made the move, and I said, ‘Hey, how about we actually go on a date?’” says James.
The next weekend, Daron picked James up, and they went out in Atlanta’s East Atlanta Village neighborhood.
“They have this really cute Thai restaurant and it’s very dimly lit, and the tables were small. So it was very intimate,” says James.
“We start to have a conversation and start talking about things, learning things that we had in common. And the entire time we were talking I had this big smile on my face, I couldn’t stop smiling.”
His smile was reflected on Daron’s face.
“It was just a very open and positive vibe, and I felt like, ‘This is different, I kind of like it,’” Daron says. “I felt very safe with him from pretty much the moment we were just by ourselves talking and engaging.”
Both men say their connection felt “different” from anything they’d experienced in the past.
“There was this feeling, this unknown feeling that I wasn’t familiar with, but it was one that I was comfortable with,” says James.
He recalls thinking, “I think I’ve met a person that I want to spend the rest of my life with.”
After that first date, James and Daron talked pretty much every day. When, a few weeks later, Atlanta was hit by an unexpected snow storm, James set up camp at Daron’s house.
“I spent the entire rest of the week at his house, took my dog, I had a Boston Terrier, and he had two Pomeranians, and they were close in age,” he says. “So that allowed us to build a bigger connection because we had this time together where it was just us.”
Bonding over travel
Not long after, the two took their first trip together.
“He loves to travel, I love to travel. And so on our very first trip, we took a cruise,” says James.
This trip was a good test of their relationship, suggests James – not only were they traveling together for the first time, they were in close quarters on a crowded ship.
The vacation only brought them closer together. Not long after Daron was meeting – and charming – James’ mother.
“And just from there, we just continued to celebrate each other, start falling in love with each other, making a deeper connection, taking trips,” says James.
The couple discussed marriage early on in their relationship. Both thought it would be on the cards at some point, but it was some years later – in 2019 – when Daron decided to ask James to marry him.
He organized a birthday photoshoot with James and their dogs. Then he secretly texted all their friends, swearing them to secrecy. Loved ones flew into Atlanta from across the US.
“We did a photoshoot at this park, not far from our house. His birthday is in November so it was beautiful – orange and yellow trees. There’s a lake there, and we took pictures with the dogs,” recalls Daron.
“And then as we’re standing there, his friends and my friends all come up, and then I propose.”
“It was beautiful,” says James. “I was very surprised.
James was thrilled, but also amused – he’d recently made up his mind to propose to Daron – he just hadn’t got to it yet.
The couple were married on April 3, 2021. They picked the date because it had a nice ring to it – 04, 03, 21 – and were later grateful to have avoided scheduling a 2020 peak-pandemic wedding.
They love plants and greenery, and they brought that motif into the wedding decor and outfits: James and Daron wore green suits, and they asked their guests to wear shades of brown.
“It was very, very nice – and it blended really well with the greenery of the plants and all that,” says James.
Each table had a different photo of Daron and James in a different country they’d visited together, reflecting their love of travel and nodding to their travel-themed meet-cute. The two men combined their last names, becoming Daron and James Sanford-Fowler.
10 years later
It seems apt, adds Daron, that they first met at the airport. Almost 10 years since that day, travel remains one of their big connectors.
“We are travel culture junkies, we love to immerse ourselves in other cultures,” he says. “We’ve touched every continent except for Antarctica at this point together.”
They’ve got other common interests too – they are both music fans, sharing the same favorite artist: Beyoncé.
They love going out to concerts, but also enjoy quiet moments at home.
“We are huge couch potatoes, and there’s probably nobody that can watch TV on the sofa better than us,” says Daron. “What makes our relationship super special is that there is a level of comfort between the two of us, that we can do absolutely nothing and say absolutely no words and enjoy the time together.”
It’s in those quieter moments that they sometimes find themselves reflecting, in awe, on their airport meeting.
James jokes he also thinks back on it whenever Daron wears short shorts.
“I did not go to DR expecting to meet my future husband at all,” says Daron.
“I think it’s just kind of wild that this happened to me on a very random trip – I happened to sit down on a bench.”
“The last thing I thought was that the first guy that I run into as soon as I got off the plane, would be the person I’m sitting next to in 10 years,” agrees James. “Sometimes I kind of reflect back and I have to pinch myself.”
The couple hope their next step will be fostering or adopting a child, starting a new chapter together.
James says he’s still “on cloud nine” to have met Daron. He’s looking forward, he says, to the two of them continuing to grow together.
“Once you make that commitment, that you are going to spend your life with this person, you have to make the commitment that you are going to grow and continue to learn this person.”
“I’m still learning the person that I’m sitting next to, and I enjoy learning him. And I want to continue to learn new things about him.”
Top photo of James, on the left, and Daron Sanford-Fowler on the right, courtesy Torii Le’Chelle