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Tour Round the World at the Milan Expo

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In an ideal world, we’d all be able to visit every far-flung country on our bucket lists. This past May at the Milan Expo — this year’s version of the World’s Fair in Milan, Italy —  TPG Contributor Leigh Rowan got to do the second-best thing: experience a variety of cultures simply by strolling through the pavilions in the exhibition hall. Join him on a virtual trip from Brazil to Kuwait to North Korea — all in a single day!

You're now entering the Kingdom of Bahrain (but not really).
You’re now entering the Kingdom of Bahrain (but not really).

First up is the Kingdom of Bahrain. This very rich country showcased its plants and vegetables — and it even imported some palm trees and cacti. As we strolled through the heavily manicured gardens (every inch of soil was perfect), I had to wonder: how did the Bahraini government fly these endemic Bahraini items to Italy? The logistics behind seemingly boring questions like this boggled the mind while the rest of the pavilion — stark white and lacking any real soul — bored the heart. Onto the next!

Cacti and palm trees at the Bahrain pavilion.
Cacti and palm trees at the Bahrain pavilion.

Brazil also showed off its flora and fauna, and the pavilion itself was quite striking. With a ramp and a cargo net-like entryway that visitors can walk on, it was definitely a unique experience. As you can see from the photo below, it was quite popular, too, with long entry lines to the main experience.

The Brazil pavilion's striking architecture.
The Brazil pavilion’s striking architecture and entrance.

It was interesting to see how popular expos handled long lines. Most countries neglected their lines, sometimes to the detriment of their visitors (I’m looking at you, United Arab Emirates, where we watched a visitor faint from the heat while waiting 45+ minutes to enter; happily, the poor woman quickly came to with the help of the Expo security staff, who are everywhere). Others, like Slovenia, went crazy with their (short) lines, engaging guests in conversations and dance parties, and even offering free food/beverage samples to their visitors.

Two words you never think you're going to use in the same phrase: "trippy" and "Kazhakstan."
Two words you never think you’re going to use in the same phrase: “trippy” and “Kazhakstan.”

I was excited to see Ethiopia’s pavilion (it’s always been on my travel bucket list), but it turned out to be one of the more underwhelming ones at the Expo. Aside from a small area with examples of traditional crafts set atop some artificial grass outside, and an even kitschier inside display of coffee farming, there wasn’t much to see.

Ethiopia's modest display.
Ethiopia’s modest display.

Ecuador wins the award for most colorful pavilion — just check out this exterior!

Psychedelic, right?
Psychedelic, right?

Kuwait’s setup was quite nice, as well, with a design meant to evoke the country’s traditional sailing boats.

The Kuwait pavilion is meant to evoke the country's traditional sailing ships.
The Kuwait pavilion is meant to evoke the country’s traditional sailing ships.

The tapestries hanging high above visitors’ heads were a nice in Kuwait’s expo pavilion.

Kuwait's hanging tapestries are a nice touch.
Kuwait’s hanging tapestries lend a gorgeous/cultural touch to the ceiling of the pavilion.

I saved the best (or, rather, strangest) for last: North Korea. The country didn’t send a representative to the Milan Expo — apparently there were “visa issues” — and its space was decidedly spartan, void of any soul and, frankly, super creepy.

Welcome to North Korea (if only!).
Welcome to North Korea (if only!).

Notice the empty display cases below the few photos that made up the entirety of North Korea’s pavilion.

Rich flora and fauna? Idyllic Pyongyang skyscapes? Uh, I guess.
Rich flora and fauna? Idyllic Pyongyang skyscapes? Uh, I guess.

The beautiful thing about the Expo is the ease with which you can quickly scope out the coolest and weirdest (Hi, Turkmenistan!) country pavilions. It’s definitely worth the $40 or so for a day ticket to stroll through the wonder of the globe and see what we humans and our governments’ marketing/tourism departments — are capable of creating.

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