I Attended A World’s Fair & It Was Awful & Hilarious
The terracotta landscape of Zaragoza takes shape as our plane descends; tall tan apartment buildings border the highway to the city. It feels like real-life sepia. I thought there would be more green. Crammed into a cab driving too many km per hour, we fly through the scorched sea of brown on a vacant highway. It reminds me of when I visited my dad during a surgical training intensive in the dusty town of Lubbock Texas, where everyone sported an unlimited car wash pass and the water tasted dry. I feel foolish not knowing that Zaragoza is in a desert. With an imagination so vivid I can get lost in it, I have a tendency to romanticize adventures before they happen. I try not to get hung up on my expectations not matching the reality of my surroundings, although the difference does inspire skepticism about the World’s Fair. If this were truly a global event of historical proportions, wouldn’t the roads be busier? I am not as miffed about the desert landscape, because I had enjoyed trips to other deserts: Palm Desert, Las Vegas, and New Mexico. As it turns out, the empty desert will only be the beginning of many aspects of the trip that spawned a mélange of absurd Type 2 Fun.
In college, a climber friend introduced me to the concept of Type 2 fun. Type 1 fun is an experience that is fun at the time and also fun in hindsight, like eating dinner at a delicious restaurant. Type 2 fun is an ordeal: stressful, painful, or a disaster, but in retrospect revealed to be a comedy of errors or an unparalleled bonding experience. Type 2 fun is created anywhere there are mundanites or discomfort, from studying with friends until everyone’s brains feel like mush, or trying to explain a UTI to an elderly man doctor in a rural Greek clinic using Google Translate. In my experience, travel gives rise to the Type 2 Fun that revolves around mistakes, disappointments, and illness.
When my mom informed me that we would be going on a trip to Spain, I convinced her to let us take the detour to Zaragoza and attend the World’s Fair. Ice cream cones, color tvs, zippers, and fax machines all made their debut at World’s Fairs. Structures that have become global landmarks were built for the expositions: The Eiffel Tower, The Seattle Space Needle and The San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts. I grew up within walking distance of The Palace of Fine Arts and frequented the adjacent science museum. It stands tall and majestic in tan and red concrete, a pergola with a domed roof and varied Roman/Greek inspired columns arranged in pleasing curves that reflect into the tranquil lagoon. History and beauty at my fingertips intensified my image of The World’s Fair as the ultimate cross-cultural carnival with food, art, science, and innovation. I’d seen pictures and drawings of the huge halls and installations, with smiling global citizens traversing majestic landscapes and awe-inspiring demonstrations. My grandma attended the New Orleans World’s Fair in 1984 and still talks about how much fun it was for the whole family. She is hard to please and still attended more than once. In the mid 2000’s I hadn’t heard anything about the World’s Fair but I knew it still existed. The expos weren’t presenting inventions splashing across news headlines anymore, but a global carnival was a draw on its own. My mother got all the plans in order to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams and we purchased our tickets for July 4th. I was eager to engage in history!
When the taxi enters the city proper, Zaragoza looks downtrodden and empty. It is empty like during siesta, when the lightest hot air caresses the clear sidewalks and makes small trash cyclones. Maybe early July is the Spanish vacation season. We arrive at the hotel and unload our bags. A stone’s throw away sits a fenced-in abandoned lot with ragged weeds and piles of garbage. The buildings are old and packed together. Our hotel, crammed between two other buildings, has the unkempt exterior of shoddy apartments: dirty, cracked and stained. The lobby consists of two chairs on the wall opposite the concierge desk and I try not to knock anything over in the narrow entrance. I know our accommodations will be budget-friendly, but even my mom is concerned by the state of the rooms when we open the doors. It is dark and dingy and in desperate need of a deep clean and an upgrade. The walls are that shade of white bordering on yellow from years and years of neglect and smokers. The floors are those drab pixelated carpets they use in schools to hide stains. The duvet and bedding sports an 80’s pea soup color scheme. My fingers recoil at the stiff synthetic fabric, which reminds me of hospital upholstery. Somehow, we have been transported to an American roadside motel with free cable and bargain nightly rates. Impressively low ceilings threaten to press us flat. Beneath the AC unit the wall is streaked with tears.
By the time we went to Zaragoza, I had plenty of experience with travel-related Type 2 Fun. In the late 90’s, on the heels of a major revolution and decades of internal conflict, my parents decided to take me along to Prague. The city was not child-friendly, and my parents had trouble finding playgrounds. They schlepped me all the way to Europe where I fed pigeons, ate potatoes and bread, and watched the English tv channel play Mars Attacks on loop (not child-friendly either). Not long after, we went to Paris. We had barely gotten settled in the apartment after over ten hours of flying when I demanded peanut butter. Peanut butter is an American food, not something my Dad could just pick up at the grocery store. Now it is a comical Type 2 Fun memory for my Dad because while dealing with my demanding crankiness was miserable at the time, he can now see the humor of me commanding peanut butter when everyone was at the end of their ropes, in a country where it was an exotic condiment, especially since I didn’t particularly like peanut butter as a child — we didn’t even eat it at home. But Type 2 Fun isn’t always funny, it can also encapsulate the fun people experience when encountering something completely new and different. In third or fourth grade my Mom took me to Vietnam. Anytime we left the hotel locals would walk up and caress my hair and skin. I tolerated it to the best of my abilities, but have never been a fan of people touching me. It was funny, however, how quickly I became accustomed to people just walking up to us on the street to touch me. Here’s my cheek, here’s my hair, when can we go swimming at the hotel pool? Traveling is a practice in flexibility.
After a walk around the neighborhood I conclude that it must be some unique Castilian holiday because I’ve never seen so many empty catholic churches so close together. I cross paths with several West African men walking the streets with intention and yelling into their phones. The area has a gaping open space where people should be, filled instead by eerie emptiness, and quiet. However, the beauty of the old architecture is undeniable with its brick buildings decorated by wrought-iron balconies buildings and colorful tiling. But then, in one shop display after the next, I keep seeing small religious figurines of people in hooded red and white outfits. They aren’t KKK action figures, but I am unsettled nonetheless. Returning to our hotel’s block, I pass the empty lot which turns out to be occupied by a litter of kittens. I like kittens. We strip the pea soup comforters off the bed, wear socks in the hotel room, and stay away from underneath the AC unit. Even though Zaragoza is not living up to my expectations, I’m still excited about the World’s Fair. Becoming fixated on the things that inconvenience or upset me during travel only keeps me from having a good time.
A person can try to control or orchestrate Type 2 Fun, but part of Type 2 fun is being able to laugh at yourself. If you put yourself in the situation, you are aware of what you are getting yourself into. For example, if you chose to watch the Netflix interactive special Boss Baby: Get that Baby you are likely doing so to make fun of the creepy animated infant CEO Dreamworks franchise and can turn it off at any time. Now if you were on a plane where the tvs malfunctioned and couldn’t stop playing Boss Baby movies for the entire flight, that could be Type 2 Fun. You and the whole plane suffering together to ignore this CIA-level torture technique is comical from an outsider’s perspective. The thing about Type 2 Fun is you don’t get to control when it happens or how much of it is going to happen. If I were to visit Zaragoza today, I wouldn’t have the same experience with a grimy hotel and ghost town atmosphere. Sometimes even things we are comfortable with and feel are dependable devolve into Type 2 Fun. My mom and I ate street food when traveling in Asia. Never dissuaded by the lack of analogous dining opportunities in the US, we munched on snacks from stalls, and sat down on tiny plastic stools in front of hot bowls at makeshift shelters. Yet my most memorable street food experience was in Thailand when we took refuge from the midday sun in a covered stall and were served a plate of gristle and bones with a show. As I poked around the saucy heap, two gargantuan rats appeared and began to fight over a plastic grocery bag of garbage. Just a few feet away they squeaked, squealed, and thrashed. My mom and I nibbled at our lunch because we did not want to be perceived as ungrateful. The proprietors continued their tasks as though nothing was amiss about the Rat-tle Royale. We were not the only audience. A tiny kitten sat frozen and wide-eyed as the two beasts battled, smart or scared enough to understand that it couldn’t take down two massive rats. The food tasted cruddy, but it didn’t make us sick. Maybe the good stuff was in the trash. And then we moved on — we saw temples, bargained for souvenirs at the underground market, ate great food, and rat WWE became a fond memory.
The next morning we take the long shuttle ride to the grounds. Once again, things are not how I expect they will be. The exposition has been open for a few weeks but our surroundings still seem unfinished. Whoever organized the entrance must have spent most of the budget on a giant Macy’s Day Parade-style blow-up of the mascot. This is not promising for the fair itself. I had imagined flags, banners, music, colorful lights, the enticing sight of the tops of beautiful structures, a Ferris wheel… Instead we meet Fluvi, the official Zaragoza World’s Fair mascot, an anthropomorphized drop of water. The theme of the exposition is water, which none of us knew. The moment our group meets Fluvi, we realize this might be one of those experiences where things are so lamentable that they are hilarious. We take photos with a giant blow up Fluvi. I know that the World’s Fair won’t be beautiful, or a giant carnival, but maybe they will still have international food and water-related innovation. Also, I was the reason we were all here and a crappy time would be my fault.
In another instance of Type 2 fun I managed to contract “Montezuma’s Revenge” from a meal at a 5 star hotel in Mexico City. I was incredibly careful during the trip to not drink any tap water, or get ice in my drinks. However, when my dessert came garnished with a single strawberry on our last day, my mother and I concluded it was probably fine to eat. We were at a fancy hotel with an open courtyard and a diplomatic presence, they couldn’t be giving people stomach viruses willy-nilly. Shortly after, we went to the airport and boarded a prop plane into the mountains for Oaxaca. The aircraft dropped down and bounced back up again, navigating the mountain waves. Midway through the turbulent flight I locked myself in the lavatory. I felt like I was going to lose consciousness while evacuating my bowels. After landing, I exorcised my stomach and intestinal contents for over an hour in the airport bathroom and we missed our shuttle. I was pale, dehydrated, and weak, when my mom finally loaded me into a cab and we drove off into the dark. I don’t remember arriving at the hotel, but the concierge arranged for a doctor to visit. A clean-shaven, handsome middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair in a crisp white collared shirt examined me on the bed. He pressed down on my stomach, and then tapped on the naked souls of my feet. A loud gurgle emanated from my abdomen. “The bowels are moving,” he said, with a satisfied nod. He advised me to just drink liquids and let it all out. There was no doubt in his mind that I had consumed the water in Mexico City. I only saw the inside of the hotel room for several days, cherishing the cold bathroom floor and its proximity to my bed. I rolled with the punches and ate the best chicken soup of my life with potatoes, carrots, lime, the creamiest avocados, and the freshest tortillas, and I watched old Degrassi episodes with Drake on Mexican MTV.
Each country has a small room in the long two-story buildings that remind me of an outdoor mall. The architecture is ugly and unimpressive, every building gently curving inward toward the next, covered in smooth white stucco. We amble from country to country viewing an overpriced poster fair with team uniforms. Some countries work with the theme, others forgo it completely. Poland’s room is wall-to-wall blue with projections of people CGI-ed into mermaids. We all agree advertising that your country has mermaids makes no sense at all. Mexico’s area is a bar, with alcoholic drinks and a Mexican national bartender. We strike up a chat with the bartender who reveals that Mexico was also supposed to have food, but the ingredients they shipped over were delayed and maybe destroyed by EU customs. A jar of dry beans decorates one of the countertops. Power tools scream, grind, and whir at Nigeria’s unfinished station with ample unfinished wood boards laying around the doorway. In the scorching heat of the Spanish desert in July, the water theme of the expo feels like a cruel joke. Our surroundings are neither cool nor refreshing.
Hungry and tired, we cave to the concessions hut because there are no other options. It strikes me as xenophobic that Mexico couldn’t bring their ingredients when Sweden had been allowed to bring a whole taxidermy moose. The options at the concessions stand are limited so we all order sausages, which come in a bun with a small bag of chips. One of the types of sausages we order is inexplicably gray. The United States doesn’t have a station but we joke about how on July 4th we are eating the Spanish equivalent of shitty bland hot dogs.
After lunch I’m determined to find an exhibit with intrigue. We notice a long line formed out the door of one of the countries, snaking back and forth between rope stanchions. It is the most people we have seen all day. We approach the area to see what country is attracting so many guests. The entrance to the space itself exudes mystery, a sleek and simple rectangular arch all painted black frames the doorway. It is Kuwait — the “Kuwait 4D Experience” to be exact. We agree to stand in the line, because everyone else is standing in line and we don’t have anything to lose. Also, we couldn’t leave without finding out what exactly the Kuwait 4D Experience would entail. We wait, and wait some more. We wait over an hour in the dizzying summer heat. I think about asking someone who comes out of the doors if it is worth the wait, but I don’t because opinions are subjective. Besides, most of the people at the fair are reserved and in their groups like ships passing in the night. Everyone keeps to themselves and it isn’t the neighborly global atmosphere I had expected. Each of us has at least one moment when we say we can’t wait in the Kuwait line any longer, but we don’t give up. We make it to the front of the line, for what will probably be a disappointment.
A docent gestures for us to enter through the large curtains in the doorway into the darkness. I breathe a sigh of relief in the immaculate air conditioning. With our eyes adjusted to the low light, we see what the drama has been about. It’s a ride. Someone gives us 3D glasses. We file into the mini theater, each taking a seat in a large black hydraulic movie theater chair. When all of the seats are filled, the light dims and the film begins to play. Our seats hum and hiss as they prepare to move. A narrator’s voice tells us that there are no substantial sources of fresh water in Kuwait and that they use desalination plants for their water. Then we are riding on a singular camel’s back in the desert. The chairs tilt and rock. Air shoots along our sides to create the sensation that we are riding the camel very fast. We traverse rolling golden sand dunes. The 3D element isn’t adding much to the experience. The chair hydraulics are smooth, but loud and I keep waiting for a fun quick twist or turn that throws my body around. Instead a camel’s face comes right up to us in all its 3D glory and spits in our faces. Mist sprays into the theater and on us. The 4D experience has concluded.
The remainder of the Spain trip is relatively smooth and I can’t stop repeating “Kuwait 4D Experience” in a movie announcer voice. I still think about the Kuwait 4D Experience as one of the Type 2 Fun experiences where things took me by surprise and not necessarily for the better. As I write this, I wonder how the nation of Kuwait got away with getting hundreds or maybe thousands of people to line up for hours just to get spit on by a virtual camel. I wonder what it means to be spit on by a country, and wonder how much money they spent to create the experience of getting spit on by a camel. Over a decade later it turned out to be an effective teaching method because I’ve remembered that Kuwait has no naturally-occurring potable water. And if someone invited me to Kuwait I’d seriously consider coming along. I’ve seen camels in Egypt, but the ones in Kuwait are celebrities.