GREENSBORO — By the time they laid eyes on each other, the American and the Costa Rican beauty were already in love.
Soul mates for sure.
For years — and the thousands of miles that separated them — they were connected only by their voices.
Inventor Bryan Hill was doing business with the company Maribel "Mari" Solano worked for in Costa Rica, and the bilingual Solano, who had mostly learned English from American radio, was assigned to take his calls.
"I didn’t think too much about it other than she’s smart and got a great personality and I look forward to working with her," the UNCG graduate said of the initial contact. "Then I was just making up reasons to call her."
They would have no real face time over the years until she stopped in Greensboro in 1999 on a flight to New York to visit friends. The Greensboro stopover included a stay with a married couple here she knew. That visit eventually led to Solano and Hill's Valentine's Day 2001 nuptials in the magistrate's basement office in the old Guilford County jail.
The church wedding and celebration that followed in Costa Rica would feature a mariachi band and include most from the small town celebrating the union of 41-year-old Bryan and 32-year-old Mari.
"It's really a miracle only made possible by God," Bryan said of crossing paths with the future Maribel Solano-Hill.
Back when they were phone strangers there was nothing inappropriate in their conversations.
"He had a great personality," Mari said.
She had a boyfriend, but it wasn't a serious relationship.
"I had always prayed for God to send me a good guy," she said.
The technology wasn't available in the early 1990s for FaceTime or Facebook. No in-person glances for what would have been a four-hour flight or 69-hour drive. Besides, the conversations were occasional and not that kind of personal back then.
"There was no face-to-face getting to know her," he said.
Not that he cared.
That was apparent by the now laughable plot to send her flowers without attaching his name. He had even gotten the receptionist at her job to help him find a florist there.
When Mari called to thank her boyfriend, who she thought had sent them, he didn't know anything about it.
It would go just as Bryan had hoped, with an argument and them breaking up. Not long after, Mari began receiving a UPS package every Friday containing a card and letter— sometimes covered in confetti hearts.
Others who knew about the breakup were giving her push-back about leaving the boyfriend. Bryan had told her to pray about it and let her heart lead her, which drew her closer to him.
"We talked about what we liked and how we both wanted a family and fidelity, and having a strong belief in God," Bryan said. "I knew she was the one."
There was a fleeting moment as he awaited her flight in 1999, as to just who he had been courting.
"It wouldn't have mattered," he said. "I knew in my heart I was going to end up marrying her."
Mari, however, had asked for a picture right before her trip to the U.S.
She would be traveling thousands of miles.
His baby blue eyes jumped out at her in the photograph that came.
"I was so nervous," she said of getting off the airplane in Greensboro. "But when I saw Bryan, I felt like I knew him for so long."
In Greensboro, they went out to dinner with his parents and brother and the whole family fell in love with her.
"My brother took me aside and said, 'You get her passport and you don’t let her go back to Costa Rica,'" Bryan said. "He said, 'She’s wonderful.'"
During a Christmas visit in 2000, he took her for a day trip to Grove Park Inn in Asheville, which offered a phenomenal display of decorated trees. Standing among them, he got down on bended knee.
"At this point I couldn’t wait any longer, I’m going to ask her to marry me, " Bryan said. "She said, 'Yes,' but I could see she had some reservation. The yes wasn't conditional, but there was something there. I said, 'I know what you are thinking" and 'I'm going to Costa Rica and ask your parents for permission.'"
Mari, the oldest of seven children in a tight-knit family, still lived with her parents.
She had prepared her parents for his arrival.
"Everybody, even the neighbors, they knew about Bryan coming," she said of the word spreading.
He was the only American in the village.
She took Bryan, who had begun studying Spanish, to see her grandmother, and he took her parents out to dinner.
"I asked her father for permission and he said to me, 'OK, you can marry her, but I gotta warn you that she has a little bit of a temper sometimes.'"
Mari and Bryan laugh at the memory but at the time both Mari and her mom kicked her dad under the table.
"Thank goodness my Spanish wasn’t good," he said with a laugh. "I just heard, 'Yes.'"
Mari's sisters were a different story.
"Her sisters didn’t care for me because they knew what this meant. She was going to move to the United States. I said to her, 'You are the oldest of seven children, we’re going to come back every year."
A photographer would capture their smiles during their nuptials on Valentine's Day 2001 as part of the "I Do's Fill Magistrate's Office" front page story appearing in the next day's News & Record.
"Wearing a baby-blue suit, Solano couldn't take her eyes off Hill as he recited his vows," went the story. "As he finished, she grinned and wrinkled her nose at her groom."
After second vows in a flowing white wedding gown in Costa Rica, that meant moving to the United States, where she began studying for her citizenship. She had a good job in Costa Rica.
"I left everything for him," she said. "Not even in the wildest dream did I think I would fall in love and move here."
Building a family
Just as Bryan promised, they've been back to Costa Rica every year except in 2020 because of COVID-19.
In the beginning, Mari would go ahead for a few weeks before Bryan joined her.
As newlyweds they traveled as far as London.
They wanted children and remember the first time the pregnancy stick showed positive.
"We got six or seven of the tests, and every time one came back positive, we'd do another one," he said of that night.
That was their introduction to 18-year-old Nicole. Thirteen-year-old Sophia would be next. He says they are smart and kind, like his Mari.
"She's a wonderful mother," he gushes of his wife.
Mari finds him to be the perfect "girl Dad."
"He's always there for them," Mari said.
There is a little hesitation when the two are asked what he would do if the daughters later find love with someone abroad that they've never met but talk to online.
Mari, with a laugh, defers to her husband.
He says there will have to be interviews.
While he says the times are different, he knows that true love comes in the oddest ways sometimes.
"I have a wonderful life," Bryan said, looking into his wife's eyes, "and I don't know if I deserve it."
Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.