‘A simple hello could lead to a million things.’ This carpe diem-esque quote is scribbled on various journal pages, typed into an Instagram caption, or spoken aloud in times of uncertainty and hesitation.

This is a story about one of my first experiences traveling solo, an experience that continues to affect and shape my travels one year later. It is the story of how a simple hello can change everything.

The best things in life happen unexpected - especially when you travel. And a simple hello can change everything you experience in a new country afterwards!

I had just spent a month in Galway, Ireland, living and learning the Gaelic language in a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking community). I flew from Boston to Shannon and bus-trekked to Galway by myself, although I do not consider this part of the trip as truly “solo.” Since I was joining thirty other North Americans for an academic program, I still felt like part of a larger group despite knowing no one beforehand. The solo part came afterward.

Determined not to give up an opportunity to see more of the beauty across the pond, I planned a two-week backpacking trip for myself through Eastern Europe.

The concern from home failed to affect me. I stored my luggage at Dublin Airport and hopped on a one-way flight to Pula, Croatia with my lovely, worn yellow backpack as my companion.

The best things in life happen unexpected - especially when you travel. And a simple hello can change everything you experience in a new country afterwards!

My belly was a pot of excited nerves mixed with a hefty portion of uncertainty and a dash of spontaneity. Here I was, flying to a country I had never been to, without a single contact or clue how to speak the local language.

I settled for a rental apartment that appeared only slightly trustworthy because I was desperate and short on time. The taxi driver drove me into Pula’s suburbs and almost certainly ripped me off on the fare before dropping me off on a terribly empty and silent street. I thought I was in the wrong place.

Taking a deep breath, I pressed the gate’s buzzer. Incomprehensible Croatian words flew through the speaker and I did the only things I knew how, I answered in English and prayed to be at the correct address. Recognizing my name, a woman appeared and led me upstairs to my apartment, which was not ready yet because I was hours early.

She welcomed me to sit outside while she and her daughter prepared the room. I looked out at the orange rooftops that dotted the landscape before me. It was a boiling 98-degree August day and the water was nowhere in sight. Wasn’t coastal Croatia supposed to boast nice water?

For weeks before I had mentally prepared myself to keep my passport and possessions safe. I was determined not to become another statistic amongst careless pick-pocketed tourists. So when the woman asked for my passport my antennae went up. She didn’t speak English and had to communicate through her daughter. Reluctantly, I gave it to her and she left the room with it. While she was gone, I struck up conversation with the girl.

The best things in life happen unexpected - especially when you travel. And a simple hello can change everything you experience in a new country afterwards!

Nina was a university student home for the summer. She spoke multiple languages and was a year younger than me. Long after her mother returned with my passport safe and sound, we continued to talk and she suggested where I should go during my time there. She wrote down ideas, pulled out a map, and showed me the route to the nearest beach. Five minutes after she left, I heard a knock on the door. There stood Nina inviting me to hang out with her the next day since she had the day off. Without hesitation, I accepted.

I spent the rest of the day alone, wandering the neighborhood and lounging on the nearest beach—which was littered with tourists—but could not contain my excitement for the following day. I was going to see the real Pula.

Nina guided me along miles of coastline. We stopped at several of her favorite spots to swim and relax. Pula’s rocky coastline was unlike anything I had ever laid my eyes on. I plunged off rocks into the cool, blue Adriatic Sea for the first time. This is where the locals bathed in the golden sunrays. We watched daring teens cliff jump off the side of the rock face. We climbed down a slightly dangerous mini cliff into a tiny turquoise cove for a swim. Floating on my back, I could not believe the turn of events that had occurred in the last twenty-four hours. I had gone from a confused, adaptorless woman paying too much for a taxi to a fresh pair of eyes experiencing Croatian summer as the locals did.

Residing at the southern tip of Croatia’s Istria peninsula, Pula is a mixture of all the region’s good things. The cuisine pulls Mediterranean and Italian elements into its many seafood dishes. Ruins of a Roman past in the city center give clues as to its ancient roots. Summer concerts are regularly held in the Roman arena and Forum, the younger siblings of the majestic structures found in Rome. Everything felt old.

The best things in life happen unexpected - especially when you travel. And a simple hello can change everything you experience in a new country afterwards!

Nina was the best tour guide. We weaved in and out of the city’s cobblestoned streets while she told me about the different buildings. After I expressed my deep burning love for pizza, she immediately brought me to her favorite pizza place for dinner. We walked an hour back to the house late at night together.

I swam in waters I never would have set foot in, looked upon the most gorgeous coastline spots that I never would have found by myself, stayed out late in the night in a stunning old city that I never would have explored after dark, and I learned so much about an incredible girl and her culture that I never would have known on such a personal level. All of this resulted from a simple hello. A simple hello spoken to fill the silence while I waited for my passport. A simple hello to put myself at ease when I felt a little bit over my head in this new thing for me called solo travel.

The best things in life happen unexpected - especially when you travel. And a simple hello can change everything you experience in a new country afterwards!

This is a guest post by Tara Higgins.

tarahigginsauthorphotoAfter graduating from university, Tara saved her pennies to head across the pond to study Gaelic in Ireland. Her first solo backpacking trip led her through Europe before she made a huge move from the United States to New Zealand. She wants to spend the rest of her life reading books in beautiful places and when she’s not trekking through new cities with a book in hand, you can find her exploring breweries and climbing mountains. Follow her adventures on Read To Travel and on Instagram @taraqhiggins.