“Google Maps? Check. Top destinations in Marrakech? Check. Cheap places to eat Tajine? Hold on, let me look them up. There, check! I have a few days to be the Ibne Battuta of Morocco, why not plan ahead,” announced my brain before I boarded the plane to Casablanca in order to attend the World Merit Summit. Due to generous fundings from the event organizers, I had five days completely to myself before and after the summit.

I had been to three countries before (thanks to funded conferences and my beloved exchange program), so I considered myself relatively aware of the concept of Intercultural Understanding. As I approached the airport border control, like John Wick fleeing from his money-fuelled assassins with a sassy power walk, a frustrated immigration officer shut me down by his classic two words, “Passport, please.” I handed him my documents; he peeked at them; recognized that I am a Pakistani and turned to me with his piercing eyes.

“Welcome, my brother! First time in Al-Maghreb (Morocco)?” I nodded in agreement. The conversation swiftly changed its course with us talking about the intensity of his job, places to buy cheap train tickets and his recommended Moroccan cuisines. That was the first time I had such a friendly conversation with an immigration officer while people behind me devotedly waited for their turns. Fearful of getting punched, I let people have their turns; thanked the officer; and ran for my dear life. Next on the list was getting to the hostel.

“No English, no English!”

French? Oui. Arabic? ???. Trouble was that I knew three languages but French or Arabic wasn’t one of them. My efforts to communicate directions with the cab driver through Google Translate had little effect, thanks to the inefficient internet coverage. But it was a cue: a cue to be adventurous. So I ditched my phone and began to improvise my made-up sign language. It seemed to have worked as I do recall getting out at the right location. Tables had turned when, in order to buy milk, my impressions of a grown man drinking milk from a feeding bottle turned into a comedy bit; I ended up buying Khubz (Moroccan bread) from the shopkeeper.

I realized that not knowing the local language interestingly put me in a place of advantage. Without words, I was able to connect with people on an emotional level - a connection that transcends cultural differences and national boundaries. It deepened my understanding of humanity and the limitless capabilities of adaptability that we possess.

One of my biggest cultural shocks there was seeing female attendants in men’s restrooms. At my initial encounter, I ended up leaving the bathroom thinking it was women’s. Moreover, seeing women interact so comfortably with stranger men, in such a predominantly Muslim society, was a surprise (Men and women are usually expected to maintain some distance in Muslim cultures.) I, therefore, had questions which had to be addressed.

While conversing with my Moroccan friends from the summit, I was told that from their early years, Moroccans are taught to treat all the sexes equally while being mindful of their religious boundaries. As a result, most of them grow up as open-minded individuals with a progressive approach towards life. The olive-scented coastal city of Tangier was my last stop after the summit. Standing by the chartreuse green palm trees on Cape Spartel promontory, one could observe how the calm waters of the Mediterranean sea on the East harmoniously meet the strong waves of the Atlantic ocean. Every culture, like a water body, carries distinct waves in multiple directions. In an attempt to comprehend it, one has to gaze below the tip of the iceberg. As we advance towards increasing globalization, the need for understanding and respecting - if not appreciating - other cultures has become more than ever. Not because it paves the way for cross-border peace and partnerships, but because it helps us comprehend that we’re all different-coloured flowers blossoming in the same garden, under the same sunlight - and interdependent for our aromas.

The author is a 20-year-old social activist and speaker. He is the U.S. Department of State’s Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (KL-YES) alumnus, and has spoken at multiple conferences and leadership summits around the world. Currently serving as a Recruiter at Aspire Romania, he will be pursuing his bachelor’s degree in Political Science and International Relations at Abdullah Gül University, Turkey, this year