Chance Encounters

How two strangers met in Peru on Halloween and fell in love

Francesca Street, CNNPublished 31st October 2022
(CNN) — It was Claudia Flores Iriarte's first day working at the Point Hostel in Lima, Peru. Claudia was 22, just graduated from college and this was her first job. It was October 31, 2008.
The Point Hostel is in Lima's buzzing Barranco neighborhood. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it promises both a spectacular setting and plenty of partying opportunities for young backpackers -- there's an in-house bar with cheap drinks deals, and it's neighbored by plenty of lively restaurants and bars.
Claudia's first day working at the Point Hostel coincided with Halloween. Naturally, there was a hostel party scheduled for the evening. When Claudia's shift finished up, another worker -- a friend she knew from growing up in Lima -- tried to persuade her to stick around for the party. Claudia, exhausted from a long day learning the ropes, wasn't convinced.
"I'm not that social," Claudia tells CNN Travel today. "So I didn't want to go, but she was begging me to go. So I said, 'Okay, I'm going.' And then I met him."
In 2008, Sean McCallum had just turned 30. He worked for a construction company back in his home city of Toronto, but dreamed of writing a novel. An intriguing article in National Geographic about a shaman in the Amazon prompted Sean to put all his savings and annual leave toward a research trip in Peru.
Sean planned to spend just one evening in Lima before hopping on a flight into the Amazon.
"It was Halloween. There's a thousand different hostels you can check into. I found this place online and thought it looked like a pretty happening backpackers hostel, so I just booked in for one night," says Sean.
Sean first spotted Claudia at the reception desk when he checked in. He says he thought she was beautiful, but didn't know who she was and doubted he'd ever see her again. Claudia, meanwhile, was deep in work mode and paid Sean no attention.
But Claudia and Sean both ended up at the Point Hostel Halloween party that evening. The bar was heaving with people drinking and dancing when Claudia arrived.
"They were handing out masks to all the travelers," recalls Claudia. "There were very little costumes, but everyone was wearing something."
Claudia pulled a pink and black mask over her eyes, while Sean was handed a werewolf mask that he perched on his head.
"I don't even know if I was aware there was going to be a Halloween party that night," says Sean. "It's just assumed that before you go out for the night, you're going to be hanging out at the hostel bar, and there were a ton of people and they were handing out masks."
Claudia and her friend were standing at the bar when she first noticed Sean. She felt his eyes on her, and her friend noticed it too.
"If he won't stop staring at us, we might as well ask him to take our photo," said Claudia's friend, who then approached Sean, handing over her digital camera.
"He was like, doing a little show, taking the picture -- you know, on his knees, taking so many photos," recalls Claudia. "And then he asked me if I wanted a drink."
Sean insists Claudia was staring at him too. But he admits he was captivated by her, and that he recognized her from the front desk, so he possibly was staring.
Claudia said yes to the drink, and they sat at the bar with a couple of Jägerbombs.
"We got to talking, and had lots of fun," says Sean. "It was so loud in there. I asked Claudia her name a couple of times, and I could not hear what she said."
Claudia realized Sean hadn't picked up her name, and kept teasing him about this as the evening went on.
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Sean and Claudia on the evening they met at the Halloween party at the hostel.
Courtesy Sean and Claudia McCallum
After several hours of drinking and dancing in the hostel bar, most of the revelers went out for the night. Sean and Claudia decided to stay in.
"We were having such a great time," says Sean. "So we just kept talking. And I remember we sat down at the hostel computer and connected on Facebook."
It was 2008. Neither Sean or Claudia had smartphones. Instead, they crowded around the single desktop computer in the hostel and looked one another up on the then-fledgling social media platform.
Sean, who says he was embarrassed to be 30 and staying at a youth hostel, initially told Claudia he was 29. But as soon as Claudia looked him up online, his age was obvious. Claudia thought it was hilarious he'd subtracted a mere 12 months from his age.
"She found me out, but she was forgiving," says Sean.
Claudia remembers thinking Sean was "very approachable and super-friendly."
The next morning, Sean and Claudia sat around the hostel bar, this time drinking fresh juice rather than Jäger. They were still chatting. The only thing that could interrupt their reverie was a minor earthquake -- which, for Claudia, was normal, but was very alarming for Sean.
"I ran outside, I was terrified because I thought the world was coming to an end," he says.
Before long, the afternoon rolled around and Sean had a flight to the Amazon to catch.
Claudia and Sean promised they would reunite a fortnight later, when Sean returned.

'Electric current'

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Claudia and Sean say their second meeting cemented their chemistry.
Courtesy Sean and Claudia McCallum
Two weeks later, Sean landed back in Lima. He says his experience with the shaman in the Amazon was "life-altering," but his main focus was seeing Claudia again.
He figured he'd stay at the Point Hostel again, but when he pulled up, he discovered it was full and Claudia wasn't working that day.
Panicking he wouldn't see her again, Sean convinced Claudia's friend -- who was working that day, and who recognized him from the Halloween party -- to use the hostel phone to get in touch with Claudia.
On the phone, Claudia explained she was getting ready to head to a friend's birthday party. She invited Sean along.
Their first meeting on Halloween had been fun. But Sean and Claudia say it was this second meeting that cemented their chemistry.
"I remember sitting at the bar, and it was an out-of-body experience," says Sean. "I can only describe it as like this electric current running between us."
The two decided to blow off the birthday party, and went out together into Barranco, just the two of them.
"I felt this energy," says Claudia. "That's why I didn't go to my friend's birthday party -- which we'd been planning for and waiting for -- just to talk with him for longer."
As they wandered around the streets of Barranco, Sean and Claudia talked about their different experiences growing up in Canada and Peru. Sean promised he'd teach Claudia to ice skate if she ever came to Toronto. They talked about their ambitions and life goals.
"It's almost not even the words that were spoken or what was said, it was just the feeling," says Sean of their evening together.
"I got on the plane the next day to fly back to Canada. And I knew, I knew, 'That's the girl I'm going to marry.'"
Sean left Claudia with his beloved Toronto Blue Jays sweater and one of his favorite books, "In the Skin of a Lion" by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje.
"I'm coming back to get these," he told her. "Just take care of them."
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Here's Sean and Claudia on a taxi ride taking Sean back to the airport. They say seperating after being together was always the hardest part of long distance.
Courtesy Sean and Claudia McCallum
Over the next several months, Claudia and Sean kept in touch as best they could. It wasn't always straightforward -- Claudia worked late at the hostel, while Sean didn't realize how pricey long-distance phone calls can be until he got his phone bill for the hefty sum of $700.
Before long, they started communicating using the chat platform MSN Messenger. They both bought webcams -- a novelty at the time. They typed messages back and forth and saw pixelated versions of each other smiling back at them.
Six months later, in March 2009, Sean booked a flight back to Lima to reunite with Claudia.
"I didn't tell anyone I was going to see her, because they would think I was nuts," he says.
He made just a few exceptions, telling his boss, because he had to account for his annual leave, his close friend and his brother, although he made him promise not to tell their parents.
Claudia waited for Sean at Lima airport arrivals with a close friend in tow. They stood arm in arm, as Claudia tried to calm her nerves.
"I needed somebody with me," she says. "I was like, 'I'm meeting this guy that I met and I like, but I don't really know him.'"
But when they were together again, Sean and Claudia say they felt the same electricity they'd experienced the previous fall.
Even a text from Sean's brother -- apologizing for failing to keep Sean's secret -- and a subsequent bemused call from his parents couldn't dampen the mood.
"We spent three or four days in Lima. Then we went further south, Ica, this beautiful desert oasis," recalls Sean.
Claudia introduced Sean to her mother and brother.
"Claudia's mom, Alicia, was just the most welcoming person," says Sean.
After that, they were officially long distance. Back home in Toronto, Sean gave up the lease on his apartment and moved in with his grandmother so he could save all his money for future flights to Peru.
A few months later, in September 2009, Sean's mother drove him to the airport and spotted a turquoise Tiffany bag among his possessions. It was an engagement ring.
Sean's mother, who'd never met Claudia, asked if he was sure. Sean said he just knew it was right.

A wedding to remember

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Claudia and Sean on their wedding day.
Courtesy Sean and Claudia McCallum
After Sean fell for Claudia, he'd started taking Spanish lessons. By September 2009, he says his Spanish was "moderately better, but still terrible."
He wanted to ask for Claudia's mother's blessing before he proposed, so he scribbled down what he wanted to say to her on paper, and read it to her one day, in Spanish, while Claudia was out of the room.
Claudia's mother gave her blessing, but told Sean to remember that "when you get married, it's forever."
Later, Sean proposed to Claudia. They were staying in a hotel that had once been the house of Peruvian sculpter Víctor Delfín. Again, Sean had written out the words in Spanish, and read them aloud. Claudia said yes.
"Later, I found all these notes, where he'd been practicing what he would say to my mom in Spanish, and what he would say to me," Claudia recalls. "I found that very cute."
Sean and Claudia were married in Peru on November 14, 2009, just over a year after they'd met.
The celebrations took place at a beachfront venue in Barranco. Some 20 of Sean's closest friends and family flew from Canada for the celebrations, including Sean's 84-year-old grandmother, who'd witnessed the relationship develop at close hand while Sean lived with her. Sean says he's forever grateful that so many of his loved ones were there on this special day.
"For him it was very special and very cool and very touching that everybody came, but I was freaking out -- I was going to meet his mom, dad, sister, his friends, all at once," says Claudia, laughing.
But despite the high stakes, these introductions all went smoothly. The two families enjoyed a great meal at Claudia's mother's house the first night, and they quickly bonded over a mutual love of good food and good company. Sean and Claudia acted as translators for the two families.
"It was a great day, it was really cool," says Sean.
When Sean's friends from Toronto arrived, they joined focus with Claudia's friends from Lima for a raucous joint bachelor and bachelorette party at -- where else -- the Point Hostel.
The wedding day was also a great party, with some unexpected twists for the Toronto guests.
"In Peru, they have something called the 'Hora Loca', crazy hour," explains Claudia. "At midnight, a bunch of clowns and balloons and confetti come and build a party, and make everybody dance and do games."
"All of a sudden, the lights go out, the music gets cranked up and these clowns on stilts and balloons get everything going," adds Sean.
The couple thought this would be a fun addition to their wedding celebrations -- not least because it was Sean's mother's birthday at midnight, so it was a way of celebrating her too.
"That was super memorable for everyone," says Sean, who says the "Hora Loca" is the main thing their loved ones talk about when they reminisce about the wedding today.

'The whole wide world'

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Claudia and Sean, pictured here in Canada in summer 2022, are still together fourteen years later.
Courtesy Sean and Claudia McCallum
Sean and Claudia relocated to Toronto together in 2010. They still live in Canada today, with their two children. Sean did end up writing a book inspired by his time in Peru, called "The Recalcitrant Stuff of Life," published in 2021.
Relocating to another country wasn't easy, says Claudia -- who took Sean's name following their wedding, becoming Claudia McCallum -- but she says she always adopts the view that Peru is always "just a flight away." She's loved building a life with Sean and their children in Toronto.
Nevertheless, there have been times when the distance has been particularly tough, such as when Claudia's mother passed away four years ago. Sean says he had to work through feelings of guilt during that time, as he felt bad that Claudia lived in a different country, and felt he was to blame for that.
But Claudia says she treasures the time her mother spent in Toronto meeting her grandchildren and seeing her daughter's new home.
"But she got to come to Canada and see our lives," she says.
Claudia also supported Sean when his grandmother passed away -- Claudia and Sean's Irish grandmother got on very well, having bonded over both being immigrants to Canada.
It's also important to Sean and Claudia to bring up their children with Canadian and Peruvian traditions and customs. Claudia has a book of all her mother's handwritten Peruvian recipes, and she's enjoying teaching them to her kids, who are now eleven and eight and love experimenting in the kitchen.
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Sean and Claudia on a recent vacation with their two kids in Hawaii.
Courtesy Sean and Claudia McCallum
This Halloween marks fourteen years since Sean and Claudia first met. Every year when October 31 rolls around, Sean and Claudia enjoy telling their kids the story of how they met.
"I wasn't a huge Halloween guy," says Sean. "But I am now, it's a special day."
"Our daughter always makes sure we're all set up for Halloween," adds Claudia.
Every Halloween, the couple also find themselves reflecting on the series of serendipitous decisions that led them both to walk into the bar at the Point Hostel on October 31, 2008.
Sean could have never traveled to Peru, or he could have chosen a different hostel. Claudia could have taken a different job, or not worked that night, or not gone to the Halloween party.
"Honestly, I'll wake up sometimes and be like, 'Did this really happen? Is this real? Because I don't want to get all mushy, but I'm still completely in love, and it's amazing," says Sean.
There's a song called "The Whole Wide World," originally recorded by English singer songwriter Wreckless Eric, which the couple feel emblemized their relationship. A cover version by a Canadian artist, Bahamas, soundtracked their first dance.
"The chorus is 'I'd go the whole wide world just to find her,'" says Sean. "And so we had that as our wedding song. And everyone's like, 'Oh, this is so perfect.' But it's true, you know, I went the whole world just to find her, and I'm so thankful for it."