It may be called one of the biggest shows on Earth, but the soul of Expo 2020 Dubai lies in the small pavilions.
While some countries have gone to eye-popping lengths to create stunning pavilions, from the shape-shifting South Korea offering and the UK’s startling cross-laminated timber construction, Expo is home to a constellation of attractions that belong to smaller nations with big imaginations.
You may also need to put some work in to find them. The pavilions of these countries are located off the site’s main thoroughfares and down the side streets dotted with ghaf trees.
This is actually an inspired choice, as these pavilions, some as small as two rooms, offer a respite from the hustle and bustle of the crowds.
It is also where you will meet unsung heroes of Expo, the hundreds of guides who left families at home in the service of their nation.
With a smaller crowd to deal with, they are on hand to provide that personal touch, and in some cases, the big sell.
“Suriname could be the next offshore oil hot spot, so now is the time for you to invest,” says Ivan, beaming in his eye-catching embroidered red shirt.
“We have come to Dubai to make business, partnerships and trade.”
While I didn’t exactly fit the investor profile Ivan was hoping for, I learnt a great deal at the pavilion about a country whose history and culture had passed me by.
For instance, Suriname boasts a rich cultural tradition of wood carvings. It brought a sense of its diverse ecology to Dubai and amplified that in a darkened room full of the sounds of indigenous animals and a screen projecting a waterfall.
"All aspects of the country flows together,” Ivan said. “We call it Moksie Patu, a concept in our country [which means] everything in one."
How did I find myself in Suriname? I don’t have a clue.
Despite the useful maps on offer to download or access by QR code, the best way to experience the wonder of Expo is simply to get lost.
Besides, even if you fancy yourself a bit of a navigator, chances are you will be wondering how you ended up looking at Moldovan threads minutes after chilling in Equatorial Guinea.
It seems Expo has delightfully reshuffled the map and let the countries fall where they may.
This is how I ended up in Tunisia after a stint in the nearby Samoa pavilion.
For the North African country, the big game in town is robotics and virtual reality technology with short videos of national achievements.
In the back is also a cool little souq that sells indigenous jewellery and handmade ceramic plates.
While many countries provided intimate and enchanting experiences – from the ethereal forest vibes of Gabon, and the supersized emoji stickers and makeshift clouds of Fiji, to the humble tea and cinnamon showcase of East Timor – some are determined to make their mark.
The Bangladesh pavilion is a riot of video screens, with more than two dozen showing everything from parks and historical sites to economic updates and strident speeches of founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Ethiopia also went all out when it comes to atmospherics, with evocative music, artwork, visual installation and a live coffee ceremony complete with incense.
Such were the vibrant colours and aromas on offer at Ethiopia that the sleek and minimal design of Estonia made a welcome contrast.
It is there, enjoying a hearty plate of cod with sour cream, potatoes and dill from the cosy in-house restaurant, I find pavilion director general Daniel Schaer.
The venue was minutes away from its official launch when he addressed a business delegation, comprising people from the Baltic country’s tech sector, about how to make the most of their Expo experience.
His message was to keep an open mind.
“Expo is also about the exchange of culture as well as trade and both need each other,” he said. “So, I said come here, embrace the opportunities but also learn about this region as well. We all need to be humble as well as curious.”
More information is available at expo2020dubai.com