ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia: It’s hot in Russia. I never thought I’d say that, and I stupidly only packed for cold weather, but it’s a sweltering average of 34 degrees here in the southern port city of Rostov-on-Don.
A local tells me it’ll reach 39 degrees next week, and she’s glad it's still only June because it will be “unbearably” hot in August. And we complain in Singapore ...
For visiting World Cup fans, the effect has been more siesta than sizzle. Outside the Rostov Arena, the usually boisterous Mexicans were noticeably more subdued ahead of their clash with South Korea on Saturday (June 23).
A full two hours before the game, I already saw Taeguk Warriors’ supporters seeking shelter, one pulling a wig over his face to hide from the blinding, blistering sun.
Inside the stadium, however, with their president Moon Jae-in watching on, the South Koreans dialed it up and committed 24 fouls - the highest number by any side so far in Russia.
It still wasn’t enough as Mexico shimmied to a 2-1 win.
Luckily, El Tri’s fans decided to play it cool this time and not indulge in homophobic chants, after a US$10,000 fine by FIFA for doing so during their previous match against Germany.
Elsewhere in the second round of group matches there were also plenty of thrills and spills, but some Rostov natives and non-football fans like Sanda Albrecht, 26, feel little to nothing about the World Cup.
“Yes, I was surprised to see foreigners in the local shopping centre near my home, 10km from the city,” she told me. “But my friends and I think Rostov is not an appropriate city for world events.
“A lot of money was spent to make a good impression on foreigners. And to pay for it the state increased retirement age, and introduced tax on personal remittances.
“That’s sad, isn’t it?”
A CITY NOT QUITE READY
In terms of infrastructure, Rostov, a city of some 1 million people, is certainly no Moscow.
The new airport, built just for the World Cup, is a full hour’s journey by road to the city, with no Uber or Yandex (Russia’s ride-sharing app) cars in sight.
I hopped on a shuttle to town, and managed to get a Yandex - but it was pulled over by police and my driver was whisked away for not having proper papers on him.
In three days here I’ve seen at least five police cars, beacons flashing, stopping vehicles at random.
Whether it means the city is safe or not is up for interpretation, although various tourist websites describe it as one of the most dangerous cities in Russia. Western media has also played up its proximity (60km) to the Ukrainian border and the conflict there between the army and pro-Russian separatists.
So I was just a little alarmed when my hotel assigned me - three times, no less - a card to an already-occupied room.
And in turn, when I (thought I) was finally settled in, twice I had newly-arrived tourists open the door to my room and wear the same look of surprise I probably had.
Nonetheless I took a leap of faith and left my luggage in the room as I headed off to the match.
My hotel and the stadium - also constructed just for the tournament - are on the south bank of the Don river, which cleaves the city in two. This is also the side of the river where no one lives or goes to unless for weddings and holiday getaways, said Sanda.
Which sort of explains the huge, yawning expanses of land and road all around; road which I covered by foot in a 45-minute trek from stadium back to hotel after the match.
The police had set up new roadblocks and no taxis could find their way through.
I was all alone. The streetlights were dim and flickering, the night still and deathly silent except for one steam train passing overhead and the occasional rustling in the forest next to me.
I ignored the hair standing on the back of my neck, put on my big-boy mental pants, and brisk-walked home as fast as I could.