On our way to the first orphanage, we rode in the private car driven by Yelena’s husband. It is rare for Russian vehicles to have seatbelts in the back, a discomfiting fact made more disturbing by the way Russians drive. Paradoxically, our seat had a shoulder belt, but no buckle to put the clip into.
Piling into the car, translator Faith told us to hold the seatbelts across ourselves. We complied, not knowing why it mattered. We hadn’t gone far when a policeman standing in the road waved a black and white striped billy club to motion us over. While our driver went to defend himself against the accusations outside the car, Faith postulated the policeman thought we weren’t wearing seatbelts and saw our provincial driver as an easy target for money. Faith is uniquely suited for her Lighthouse Project job, and combines a shoot-from-the-hip spontaneity, almost brassiness, that defuses tense situations. Testing her hypothesis, she leaped from the car, asking the policeman why he’d targeted us. Told I hadn’t been wearing my seatbelt, Faith questioned me if it had been over my shoulder. Righteously armed with my affirmative, Faith marched back to the hapless officer and warned him there were American “officials” in the car, they were wearing their seatbelts, and if he proceeded to cite us anyway, he was risking an international incident. Rather than writing a bigger ticket for that concoction, he let us go. Debriefing Faith, we roared with laughter. Us, officials?