World travelers' love-note courtship through airport Starbucks ends in epic proposal

PHOTO: Esther Havens and Austin Mann are pictured in a Starbucks at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol years after Mann left her a note hidden in the store. Anna Havens
Esther Havens and Austin Mann are pictured in a Starbucks at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol years after Mann left her a note hidden in the store.

It's a modern love story, set in a place familiar to most Americans: Starbucks.

But the old-fashioned nature of the communication — love notes hidden away in the coffee giant's airport locations around the world — are what make this engagement story unique.

Esther Havens and Austin Mann of Dallas are both freelance photographers who travel the world. They met in Waco, Texas, and were friends for several years before Mann left Havens a note in a Starbucks in the Amsterdam airport, knowing she would be passing through a few days later. He texted her a riddle as clue for where to find the note.

"It was then I had this thought, 'What about Austin? He's romantic and fun," she said.

PHOTO: Esther Havens and Austin Mann, world-traveling photographers, were engaged in a Starbucks at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol years after Mann left her a note hidden in the store. Austin Mann
Esther Havens and Austin Mann, world-traveling photographers, were engaged in a Starbucks at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol years after Mann left her a note hidden in the store.

The love story and the notes (with lots of coffee) continued over the years. Mann has left dozens of notes — 20 to 30 of which Havens has not yet found — in airports from Los Angeles to New Delhi. He leaves them as he travels, and when he find out she will be passing through, he lets her know where to look for the note.

"It's a lot of work to hide a note," he said. "You have to find a spot that will hold a note for years. I never know when she'll be passing through."

He thought he found a particularly good spot in a crack in a wall at a Starbucks in Iceland. He tucked it away. But the next time he was there, the wall had been removed and replaced. So he had to find another place to hide a new note.

PHOTO: Esther Havens and Austin Mann, pictured on Mont Blanc, were engaged in a Starbucks at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol years after Mann left her a note hidden in the store. Esther Havens
Esther Havens and Austin Mann, pictured on Mont Blanc, were engaged in a Starbucks at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol years after Mann left her a note hidden in the store.

Havens once went to a Starbucks in Cambodia in search of a note Austin left. But the note was gone; all the remained was the tape that he used to hold it in place.

"Still, though, it was like, 'Oh, you were here!"' Havens said of finding the tape and knowing Austin had been in the same spot.

When it came time to propose, Mann knew it had to happen in the Amsterdam airport Starbucks. Havens' flight from Tanzania was to land just past 7 a.m., and Austin arranged to be there, along with Havens' younger sister, about an hour earlier. He had told her there was a note waiting for her. They waited, and as time passed, the baristas, along with the other customers, grew more excited as the time for Havens to arrive drew near.

PHOTO: Esther Havens and Austin Mann smile after becoming engaged in a Starbucks at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol years after Mann left her a note hidden in the store. Anna Havens
Esther Havens and Austin Mann smile after becoming engaged in a Starbucks at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol years after Mann left her a note hidden in the store.

But there was a holdup familiar to every traveler: security. She texted him that she wouldn't make it after all.

Mann said he started racing toward where she was. He was almost there when he got another text, reading, "Never mind. Got through security and going to pick up the note now."

"I doubled back on the moving sidewalk. Her sister and I were shielding our faces, hoping she wouldn't see us. We got back to the Starbucks, and I had everything ready — flowers, cameras. I knew she was on her way. And then I realized I still had the note."

PHOTO: Esther Havens and Austin Mann smile after becoming engaged in a Starbucks at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol years after Mann left her a note hidden in the store. Anna Havens
Esther Havens and Austin Mann smile after becoming engaged in a Starbucks at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol years after Mann left her a note hidden in the store.

He raced across the Starbucks to the nook where the note was to be discovered and left it, and 23 seconds later, Havens walked in.

"I saw the note, and it wasn't hidden," she said. "My heart started pounding. I couldn't even read the words because I was like, 'It's happening.' I had to force myself to slow down and absorb what he wrote. It was a long and beautiful note. And then I saw him standing there. I didn't realize everyone was in on it until they all started cheering."