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His wife died. Then he unexpectedly found a second chance at love on vacation

<i>John Nears and Judy Curtis via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Judy Curtis and John Nears were both widowed and retired when they crossed paths on train traveling through Peru in 2004. Their fortuitous meeting led them both to unexpected happiness.
John Nears and Judy Curtis via CNN Newsource
Judy Curtis and John Nears were both widowed and retired when they crossed paths on train traveling through Peru in 2004. Their fortuitous meeting led them both to unexpected happiness.

By Francesca Street, CNN

(CNN) — John Nears looked forward to the trip to South America for years.

The vacation was planned by John’s wife Pam, in anticipation of John’s upcoming retirement. Pam mapped out the route, researched the trains and almost – but not quite – booked the flights.

Then everything got derailed. Pam fell ill with cancer. In 2000, at the age of 63, she died.

“I thought life was over for me,” John, who lives in the New Forest, in southwest England, tells CNN Travel today.

John had been married to Pam for over 40 years. When retirement rolled around, he felt none of the jubilation or excitement he’d once anticipated.

But as days turned into months and months turned into years, John found his thoughts returning to the long-awaited South America trip.

After thinking it over, John decided following Pam’s itinerary would be what she’d have wanted – and going on the vacation in her absence would be a tribute to her. He persuaded his recently divorced friend Chris to join him on the adventure and in March 2004, four years after Pam’s death, the two men embarked on the trip.

The six week vacation included marveling at Peru’s Nazca Lines and the salt flats of Bolivia. But the unexpected highlight was a 10-hour train journey across Peru – from Cusco to Puno.

“This was no normal train,” John recalls. “It was Orient Express-style with bow tie waiters, cabaret and an observation carriage at the rear.”

John and Chris boarded the carriage, searched for their seats, and realized they were booked on a table for four. Already seated at the table were two smartly dressed, smiling American women.

John and Chris greeted their seatmates, who introduced themselves as Judy Curtis and Judy Malody. They were two friends from the US who shared not only a first name, but a love of travel.

They were both friendly and welcoming, but John was drawn to Judy Curtis right away. He liked the manner in which she spoke – direct yet warm – and her smile.

“I thought she was attractive,” John says today. “I also thought we would be ships that passed in the night, as the saying goes.”

As the train meandered through the Andes, Chris, John, Judy and Judy enjoyed each other’s company. They talked about their lives and travels, and admired the spectacular views.

It was Chris who, at the end of the journey, suggested they all swap email addresses. Then the group said their goodbyes, assuming they’d never see each other again.

A few hours later, at the Puno hotel, John was waiting for the elevator when he spotted the two Judys walking through the lobby. It turned out the women were staying at the same hotel as John and Chris.

John surprised himself by how happy he was to see Judy Curtis again. He suggested they all dine together that evening, which they did, before once again going their separate ways.

Back home in the UK, John thought about Judy fondly from time to time. But he didn’t reach out. He was quickly absorbed back into his life in the UK, and the day spent riding the train in Peru felt an increasingly distant memory.

But little did he know that Judy, back home in San Diego, California, was thinking fondly of him too.

Reaching out

In 2004, Judy was – like John – a retiree in her 60s. Her husband had passed away several years previously and since then, Judy had tried to make her own luck. She didn’t believe in waiting around for things to happen, for people to call, for life to go your way.

So when Judy found herself wondering about the English man from the train, she decided to go ahead and get in touch with him.

“He was kind of interesting to me,” she tells CNN Travel. “So I contacted him.”

In June 2006, around three months after returning from South America, Judy dropped John a friendly email.

“If you’re ever in the US, let me know,” she wrote.

When John spotted the email in his inbox, he was delighted. But then he realized it wasn’t clear from the email address or sign off which Judy had contacted him – he had met two, after all.

“Which Judy is this?” John wrote in response.

Judy replied with an email with a photo of herself, smiling. And so began a back and forth that lasted for the next few months. The emails were fun and light, filled with stories of travels and family, comparing life in the UK to life in the US.

Judy and John enjoyed their correspondence, but “it was nothing romantic,” says John.

“I thought he might become my buddy,” says Judy.

Then, in one of his emails, John mentioned he planned to visit New York that fall to visit his cousin, who lived there. Judy suggested John should tack on a visit to California.

“I’d never been to the West Coast of the United States, only the East Coast,” recalls John. But I thought it would be a wonderful adventure to go to the West Coast. And so there I went, off to the West Coast – left my cousin in New York for a week – and met up with Judy, in San Diego.”

Judy told John she’d meet him off the plane at San Diego International Airport. In one of her emails, she mentioned she was a bit concerned she wouldn’t recognize him – after all, she’d only met him once, several months previously.

“So I said, ‘I’ll be wearing a revolving bow tie and a top hat,’” recalls John. “And I made a giant bow tie with the Stars and Stripes on one side, and the Union Jack on the other, and put it on as I left the plane.”

Judy was waiting for John at San Diego arrivals. She spotted John right away, his top hat towering above the crowd. Judy started laughing. They hugged.

While Judy jokes John’s get-up was “slightly embarrassing,” she felt an instant ease with him. She’d arranged for John to stay at a friend’s vacation rental down the road from her house – she’d been wary about inviting this man who was pretty much a stranger to stay at her house.

But after only a few hours in John’s company, Judy felt like she’d known him for years.

As for John, he loved exploring San Diego, and loved getting to know Judy.

“We had a great time,” he says. “Judy took me here, there and everywhere in the San Diego Area. It was really nice.”

When the two said their goodbyes at the end of the week, John found himself thinking that they “had a nice relationship possibly developing.”

“We both thought we’d like to meet again.”

Growing closer

John invited Judy to visit the UK, and she did – a few months later, in January 2005. The trip coincided with Judy’s birthday.

“I thought, ‘It’s no good being in the UK in the winter,’” recalls John. “So I booked a trip to Madeira. And we had a wonderful holiday.”

John organized tea at the glamorous Madeira’s Reid Palace Hotel, overlooking Funchal bay. The hotel surprised John and Judy with a birthday bottle of champagne waiting in their room.

“The trip to Madeira really cemented our relationship,” says John. “We knew we were very compatible in every way, it felt complete like that.”

Back in their respective homes on opposite sides of the Atlantic, John and Judy started planning their next adventure together. They also confided in their friends and loved ones about their burgeoning feelings.

Judy’s friend – the other Judy, who’d been there that day on the train in Peru – was especially delighted. She was happy that her dear friend had found someone with whom to enjoy life.

“John is a fun person to be with,” she tells CNN Travel. “It’s been wonderful to be even a tiny part of this whole relationship and to see it blossom.”

In the UK, John’s two adult children were pleased their father had found unexpected happiness in the wake of their mother’s passing. John’s daughter commented that Judy seemed similar, in many ways, to John’s late wife Pam. John also has two grandchildren who became close to Judy as the relationship developed.

Judy doesn’t have children, but she’s close with her community of San Diego neighbors. Judy’s friends quickly fell in love with John, who set up a British-themed pub quiz in their neighborhood.

“Everyone in my neighborhood knows him. And he knows every house and everybody who lives here. And so he’s always part of the group, from the beginning,” says Judy.

In the UK, John’s friends loved it when this glamorous American woman visited town. His friend Chris, who he’s still close with, was happy to have played a role in the relationship coming together – after all, he was the one to initiate the email swap.

“We’ve had good support systems in both countries,” says John. “People in the States welcomed me, and people over here welcomed Judy as part of the family.”

In time, John and Judy established a pattern – regular vacations together, and splitting time between the US and the UK, as well as enjoying their independence.

They never really had a formal conversation about the arrangement, says Judy, it just developed naturally.

“We would talk about where we would like to go, and we had all sorts of books and whatnot. But I think what we decided to do was, when it was on his continent he could choose and when it was on my continent, I could choose,” she says.

The two travel well together – whether it’s driving through the US national parks or exploring Antarctica.

“We never really disagree on anything,” says John.

‘A second life’

It’s now 20 years since John and Judy first met. John describes the past two decades as a “second life” – one filled with happiness and adventures he never anticipated.

“Judy and I have been to something like 38 countries together, which is quite an amazing situation,” he reflects. “From Iceland, in the north, to Antarctica in the south. Kenya, Tanzania, Turkey…”

Today, Judy is 83 and John is 87. They last saw one another at the end of 2023, when John took the Cunard Queen Mary 2 cruise ship across the Atlantic to visit Judy.

John’s now wondering if this might have been his last trip to the US. It’s a bittersweet thought.

“Sadly, I think when you get towards the 90s, as I am, international travel is not good fun,” he says.

The couple are “realistic” about the future, says John. Health and age means they may not be able to travel together again. But they refuse to feel sad about this fact. Instead, John and Judy are focusing on the joy they’ve experienced together over the past two decades.

They’re in touch regularly and video chat every other day or so via communication app WhatsApp.

On their calls, John shares funny stories about his volunteer job at a local charity shore. Meanwhile Judy chats about movies and TV shows she’s been enjoying. The two often revisit what Judy calls the “wonderful memories” of their 20 years of adventures.

CNN Travel joined one of these calls. There was a lot of laughter and fond reminiscing between John and Judy.

“I feel privileged,” John told Judy on the call. “It’s been such a wonderful relationship.”

“Thank you, sweetheart,” said Judy to John, smiling into her cell phone from across the Atlantic. “I agree with that.”

As John and Judy haven’t been able to meet this year, they’ve both been spending time reflecting on past adventures.

“I’m spending more time now looking at the pictures over and over and over,” says Judy. “We took a lot of pictures. And it’s been fun.”

John’s been focused on writing up his memories of his life and travels. He hopes to pass on these chronicles to his children and grandchildren one day. Thinking back on his life, John says he feels inordinately lucky to have enjoyed two great love stories.

“I was lucky to have met my wife,” he says. “But I was also lucky to meet another lovely lady. And to have had another lifetime.”

“When you’ve lost a partner – and I was married over 40 years – life doesn’t end at that point,” he adds. “It’s terrible. But it doesn’t end and a new life starts. I think that’s important for older people who’ve lost their partners to think that life can continue in a different way, maybe – and maybe just as fulfilling as it was in the first place.”

John likes to think his serendipitous meeting with Judy on the Peruvian train was preordained in some way. He finds it moving, and comforting, that the trip to Peru was his late wife Pam’s dream.

“It was almost like Pam had planned it,” he says.

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