This post is copied from the journal I kept while traveling in Russia with the intention of being able to look back at it years later and be able to remember small, long-since forgotten memories of my first international trip and dream come true.
It is raw and unedited with the exception of changing my husband’s name. Some posts in this series may be very short, some may be too detailed and some may be flat out unentertaining. I may interchange past and present tenses, have run-on sentences, have strange wording and just generally not meet my usual writing standards.
The experiences and thoughts I share are those of a sheltered, small-town southern girl, and what I mean to relay by this statement is that my observations while traveling to, in and from Russia may not be specific to the cities, countries, cultures and/or people I mention.
The FIFA World Cup is the largest sporting event in the world and therefore brings together people of different races, nationalities, cultures and backgrounds. I may reference these races, nationalities and cultures when talking about people and situations I witnessed and do not intend to stereotype or offend anyone.
The lights were turned off last night as I laid in bed trying desperately to get comfortable, eye mask on and too hot to use the clean comforter provided to me.
Ivan cracked the window to get some air flowing. It helped but presented a different sleep inhibitor in the form of extremely loud train noises. Nonetheless, I drifted off to sleep, waking every couple of hours to change position.
We woke 30 minutes prior to arrival in Saransk. I leaned down and reached for my phone, picking it up off the table. I had no service, but I did have text messages from Билайн saying (when translated) that I had left the home area and did not have enough money on my account to cover roaming charges. I shared this with Ron, now anxious about being in a new, smaller city in Russia with no WiFi or service, and no way to view the map or use GPS to at least get to the stadium.
I dressed clumsily in the small bathroom, washed my face and brushed my teeth as fast as I could, then returned to the compartment to brush my hair and put on moisturizer, chatting and laughing with Melissa all the while. She looked me up on my personal Instagram, and I promised to accept her friend request and follow back as soon as I got service again.
We said our goodbyes and good lucks as the train slowed to a stop, and we departed into a new, unknown city feeling clueless again. Fortunately, a tent was set up with a few FIFA volunteers, and we walked over to them to request directions to the stadium. The directions seemed easy enough, and we were happy to come across signs pointing us along the way as we walked.
We stayed with the crowd that consisted almost completely of excited Peruvians wearing jerseys and flags on their backs, singing and chanting along the way. Ron and I were quiet as we walked along the closed street, passing shops and local women old and young in long skirts and pumps, sometimes accompanied by a child pushing a scooter. It was as if we had completely taken over the town.
We made a right turn, seeing a fountain in the distance and a large screen set up in an area we assumed to be designated for the Fan Fest. We continued on until the stadium came into view just across the street from the bridge we were heading toward.
Wandering to the signs that were set up for spectators, we read the long list of what we could and could not bring into the stadium. Based on these signs, we decided not to risk bringing our day bags or the action camera, though we saw later that the camera would have been okay.
Moseying on, we walked to a gas station just past the bridge to buy a couple waters, then walked to a neighboring park to wait out the hours until the stadium opened.
The park was beautiful. It was right on the lake with a wide walking trail that circled through it. There was a Russian couple by one of the trees that made up the middle of the of the park taking pictures of one another. As they walked by, I noticed how bad they smelled and wondered how bad we smelled.
We found a bench with a view of the road and the gas station we just came from. For a while, we sat watching locals, cops and fans as they passed by us on the walking trail. I took out my shower roll and started doing my makeup, a process that turned out to be very awkward outside, wind blowing and sun glaring into the mirror on the roll.
I finally finished as a small group of Peruvians walked by and made their way into the trees. One threw a cigarette on the ground, instantly sending small flames throughout the dry grass. We glanced up to see them all stomping around, trying to snuff out the spreading flames. We rose from the bench, walking away from the spectacle quickly, desiring to separate ourselves as much as possible before more cops walked by.
Face freshly made, we went on to the stadium to search for the restricted items storage building closest to our gate. We ended up waiting in a growing line for hours, waiting for it to open while watching small groups of eccentric Peru fans as they were sporadically stopped and filmed by TV crews as they jumped up and down, waving flags and singing.
A volunteer finally opened the door, and when it was our turn we entered, immediately finding a security official who motioned for us to put our bags on the conveyor belt to be scanned. He noticed the “Cheesy Cheese” Pringles can in an exterior side pocket of Ron’s olive green day bag, pointed at it and shook his head. We asked if we could keep it with the bag, to which he shook his head. We then asked if we needed to throw it away, and the official shook his head again. We stared at him for a moment, dumbstruck, as Ron asked me if the guy wanted him to stand there and eat them all. As more people entered behind us, the man turned his head, and we moved on, leaving the Pringles can in the bag.
The room was bare, consisting only of the security scanner and large, open shelves that were very empty at the moment. We were surprised to see that the unorganized system was made of two female and two male Russian volunteers behind a counter in the center of the room. The females took down your name, Fan ID number and phone number, peeled off a long rectangular sticker printed with a number and attached it to a strap on each bag. The males then placed the bags on the shelves. It was a very long, slow process, and considering we were two hours from kick-off, I was very glad to have been toward the front of that long, ever growing line.
After our bags were stored, we wondered how long it would take after the game to get them back as we walked briskly toward the stadium and right through the empty metal barriers, making me think of that scene from Shrek where that little guy is doing the same, until we reached the volunteers. We showed our Fan IDs before passing through a door and went through security scanners before finally finding ourselves in front of the beautiful, rounded stadium.
Bright orange faded into white from the top of the stadium to the bottom. We took a few selfies in front of it, surrounded by small, red Coca-Cola tents sheltering the Peruvians who were eating and drinking before the game.
Volunteers were stationed at the gate to scan tickets before we could enter, and we had a very nervous moment when the young man had to scan Ron’s ticket three times before entry was granted.
We were in. As exhausted and sleep-deprived as I was, I felt my excitement building as I was just a couple hours away from one of my oldest dreams coming true. We walked to the concession stand. I pointed to the picture of a hot dog and held up my fingers to indicate we wanted two and did the same after pointing to a picture of a water bottle. The girl working the register seemed very overwhelmed. The lids were taken off the bottles before they were handed to us because, you know, it makes perfect sense for thousands of people crammed in a stadium to have bottles we can’t close.
An old man viewed our tickets and pointed us in the direction of our seats as I took the opportunity to take a quick glance at my surroundings. From the sprinklers sending water onto the green grass of the field to the white and orange seats of the two levels to the white rafters encasing the blue sky above, it was perfect.
There was only a handful of other spectators there, as the rest were, I’m sure, still waiting in line to store their belongings and getting their flags checked.
We were attending the first match to be held at the Mordovia Arena, and the place was spotless. Music, mostly American, was blasting as promos played on the large screen in the corner. We took selfies and videos of the stadium as we waited, and it hit me how tired I am. I tried to clear my fuzzy brain so I could take in as much of this moment as possible. As more fans filled the stands, I wished the US would have made it so that we could feel a part of a community the way the Peru fans around us did.
A man in front of me had on a white shirt with the red diagonal stripe that so many of them were sporting. It listed several names of members of his family and, in larger print, it listed the name of his brother, saying that after 36 years, this was for him. A couple sat down to my left with hot dogs and beer, and I wonder if they realized the beer had no alcohol in it. The man behind me draped his flag across the top of my head throughout the game. At some point, we believe the guy behind Ron messed his pants, as that smell lingered for the rest of the game.
The atmosphere was incredible. The Peruvians never stopped. No matter how their team was doing, they were on their feet, cheering, chanting, singing and stomping their feet so loud it sounded like thunder. Even though my fingernails were painted with the Danish flag, and the clothes we had on were in support of Denmark, we wanted Peru to win. Their fans just wanted it so bad.
Denmark ended up winning 1-0, though Peruvian chants echoed through the night as we exited the stadium. I was on fire from the excitement of the game and the beauty of the white Saransk night, but it was extinguished pretty instantly when we saw the line that awaited us at the storage facility.
The volunteers were only letting in about ten people at a time, and it was obvious we would be there a while. We observed a Peruvian man trade jerseys with a Danish guy, a group of Danish men walk by with flags chanting, “We are a country of Eriksens,” a woman and her children get to the front of the line by pretending the smallest child was sick, and a Peruvian man pull a large bottle of vodka seemingly out of thin air before offering it to surrounding people including Ron and two policemen.
We finally got our bags and made our way back to the train station, following the crowd across the bridge. We passed a young Peruvian who had found himself a beautiful Russian girl in high heels who was giggling loudly after every word he said. We saw a large white church with golden domes and rerouted toward it, passing small souvenir stations set up along the way.
We came back to the station a different way than we did earlier. We found ourselves off the path planned for the tourists on a dark street with a bar and saw that drivers were having to follow a long detour due to so many roads being closed.
Eventually, we neared the station and decided to go ahead and get our tickets out. They were not there among all the other tickets we had in my day bag, and I told Ron that I must not have arranged these tickets and that we would just have to buy tickets to Moscow.
We came up to a group of FIFA volunteers, who all crowded around us as I approached one of them. When I explained our situation, he told us there are no direct trains to Moscow other than what had been set up for FIFA spectators, and we would have to connect in a different city that we had never heard of.
I lost it. At 1:00 AM, after days of being confused, overwhelmed and exhausted, tackling one small challenge after the next, I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. The volunteer told me it would be okay as I walked away and went through security. I took a break directly after, putting my bag down in a corner before a security official yelled and motioned for us to get out the door.
We stopped at a set of steps just outside the door, and I dug through our bag searching for our itinerary, knowing that we had to have arranged trains if arrival and departure times were printed for today, and sure enough, they are. We entered the train station and told a FIFA volunteer we had arranged trains but didn’t have our ticket, and she assured us that we didn’t need them.
There was nowhere to sit in the small, crowded station, so we went on outside. I felt embarrassed for crying and freaking out. I was hungry, so we found a bench and pulled out the rice cakes we had bought from a супермаркет in Moscow yesterday. They were bland and disgusting, but it was better than being hungry. I took off my makeup afterward as men occasionally walked by.
We didn’t understand the way the tracks were set up – with separate walkways and separate signs for each one – so the majority of our time was spent with Ron trying to figure it out, paranoid we were going to miss the train. The track number was announced as it neared 1:30 AM, and we waited, looking forward to getting out of the cold.
We boarded upon arrival, hoping for another couple to share our compartment with. Instead, we’re sharing with two calm guys around my age, who are Peruvians living in the US. They’ve spent hours upon hours on a bus and are looking forward to sleeping in a bed for the first time in days.
Ron and I discussed with them our own travels up to this point, mentioning how intimidated we felt in Istanbul. The one with dark hair said he had worked there for a while and had a female friend with blonde hair, and people there would come up to her and touch her hair. It doesn’t surprise me since I was the only one with blonde hair that I saw during our short journey through that airport.