The Outsider's Insider

A Guide to Living in Yerevan

Yeghvard On My Mind – by Tim Straight July 27, 2010

Filed under: Tim Straight,Uncategorized — outsidersinsider @ 12:39 pm
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I was in Yeghvard last week. The Yeghvard in Syunik, not the one just over the Davidashen bridge in Kotayk.
Six days later, I am still thinking about that little village of 320 souls perched on the edge of everything.
We drove into little Yeghvard some 10 hours after leaving Yerevan, having traveled first to Tatev, with its magnificent but weary church\fortress complex. From the main road up to Tatev there basically is no road at all. Gravel flies as I surge up where the road used to be, deep gashes in the road cut by rain showers some months ago. Sharp swings one after the other.
Once finished with snapping pictures and climbing ramparts, we headed the back way out of Tatev and started the five quarters of an hour trip up up up and down down down to Kapan. Crossing the main road again, we wound our way up the other side of the valley through the villages of Syunik and Agarak, and rolled into Yeghvard as the sun was setting.
We stopped in front of the house where the Land and Culture group of young American-, Lebanese- and French-Armenians were keeping house. As I climbed out of the car, I noticed that the facade of the house on the opposite side of the road, facing towards Karabakh, had deep holes in it. My experience from the war in Bosnia told me that the grenade had landed in the garden, and the blast splattered metal bits up the wall. I hadn’t seen that much in Armenia, only up in the villages on the Azerbaijani border in Tavush. It sobered me.
I asked the mayor how long the bombing had gone on during the conflict. He told me that it started in 1991, and ended in May of 1994. He also told me that one person was killed in the village during a grenade attack. It struck me that these must be tough people, to have endured three years of bombing.
After taking a long look at the stunningly beautiful church that the Diaspora youth are renovating, the mayor invited us for dinner in the garden of his house. The conversation was lively, the food was excellent. Traditional Armenian table… the greens, the cheese, the olives, the khorovatz, and a rich amount of local wine and vodka.
We talked about life in Yeghvard.
Every house in the village has a couple of beehives, and the honey from those supplements their income. They don’t sell the wax, only the honey. I see images of beeswax candles, beeswax lip balm, and beeswax something in my head. But who will see the opportunity and follow up?
The library in Yeghvard got one new book last year. One.
The people of Yeghvard have trouble growing crops because they get one hour of irrigation water per week. One. Per week.
I asked the mayor where they get their irrigation water from. He said the source is seven kilometers away, but that there is not enough water at the source. A better source, which would serve not only Yeghvard, but surrounding clusters of houses (some 640 people in all) is twenty-five kilometers away.
I did a rough head estimate…25 kilometers of 10 cm pipe at a price of AMD 3000 pr. meter(really a rough guess) means that to bring irrigation water to Yeghvard would cost USD 200.000 or so. Exclusive of labor, excavation equipment, etc.
Not an uplifting situation.
I love villages like Yeghvard. Nerkin Karmiraghbyur in Tavush is another one of my favorites. The people of these villages were on the front line during the conflict, and bore the brunt of it. They are strong, they are proud, they are solid.
So how does one help a village like Yeghvard? They have so much against them, most of it geography… far from Yerevan, far from their water source.
I hope this blog post will raise an eyebrow, plant a thought.
Yeghvard, I am still thinking about you.


The Car Specialists – by Tim Straight July 19, 2010

Filed under: Tim Straight,Uncategorized — outsidersinsider @ 2:35 pm

The air-conditioning in my clunky old Landcruiser stopped working the other day.  It was about 40 degrees Centigrade(oh, around 106 or so Fahrenheit) when it decided to go on strike.

This needed to be fixed.

I called Misha, my trusty car fixer guy.  Misha can’t always fix it as he is mostly a body and motor specialist, not an electrical or air conditioner specialist.  But he can tell what’s wrong.

He turned on the motor and the air conditioner.   The air was blowing, so he eliminated electrical problems as the cause.  He told me it was the freon that needed refilling.  Little did I know that there was freon in a car air conditioning system, mechanically challenged that I am.  Still, I knew refrigerators had freon, so the logical leap is not a huge one.

I asked him if he could fill freon.  Nope, he didn’t do that work, I had to go to a specialist.  I inquired where a freon specialist might be in Yerevan.  Over behind the Rossiya(meaning Russia) building, Misha assured me.

I dutifully drove to the other side of the city center and found the garage behind the Russia building.  However, the very greasy and smelly but pleasant enough gentleman there did not do freon.  No no no, he has never done freon, where did I get that silly idea.  I asked who does do freon. ‘There might be a specialist out in Bangladesh’. (Malatia is the real name of this district, but it is situated so far away from the center of Yerevan, that it has been nicknamed Bangladesh)

I climbed back into my clunker, pulled away from Russia and past the circus(where I have heard that they still have dancing bears), through India(a section of town where they used to show Bollywood films at the cinema during the Soviet days), swing right at the round-about just past what I understand is the best fabric shop in town(though they only show ladies underwear in the display window), head past the Miami club(a new shiny place in the Third District of Yerevan) and under the bridge near the American embassy.  Then you are at the entry of Bangladesh.

I found the natural gas filling station behind which is the mystical freon place.    The sweaty but ruggedly handsome freon specialist opened the hood of my clunker.

He:  Where is your air conditioner belt?

Me:  Do car air conditioners have belts?

He:  Yours obviously doesn’t

It seems my air conditioner belt that I never knew existed had broken and fallen off.

Me:  So, how much does it cost for a new air conditioner belt?

He:  I have no idea.  I don’t sell them.  I am not a belt specialist, I am a freon specialist.

Me:  Where can I buy the belt?

He:  Wouldn’t know- maybe at the belt place across the street from KIA Motors at the other end of Bangladesh.

Back in the car, I drove to the other end of Bangladesh (on towards Korea, I suppose?) and found KIA Motors.  Across the street indeed was a car part shop in a basement.  Progress.  I entered, and saw a pudgy belt specialist man behind the counter.

Me:  Do you have air conditioner belts for a Landcruiser?

He:  Yes, we do.  What is the model of your car?

Me:  I have no idea.

He:  What is the year of your car?

Me:  2000 or 2001….or maybe 1999

He(understanding that he is dealing with a man who has no clue about cars):  How many cylinders does your car have?

Me:  umm…

He:  6 or 8?

Me: yes

He:  Is your car outside?  Can I have a look at it myself?

This belt specialist man was one of the more patient souls I have met in situations like that.  God bless him.  He confirmed that I have six cylinders, and effectively punches away on his computer.  He gave me the code of the belt I need.

Me:  How much does one of those belts cost?

He:  I have no idea.  I don’t have any.

Me:  Interesting, do you have an idea where I can get one?

He:  Nope, no idea.  You have to check every car parts shop in Yerevan until you find it.

I had started to get exasperated now.  Misha sends me to a man who does not do freon, he sends me to a man who does freon, but doesn’t do belts, and he sends me to a man who indeed does belts, but not the one I need.  And all of this so far has taken me through Russia, India, Miami, Bangladesh and possibly Korea.  I have been on this case now for about three and a half hours.

I called Misha and asked him where to buy my air conditioner belt.  He suggested the place in Pushkin street in central Yerevan where they have everything, but at a premium price.  I didn’t care.  This bloody air conditioning belt, that I did not know four hours earlier existed, was now the only thing in my life that matters.  I drove from Bangladesh to Pushkin and secured my belt for a cool AMD 10.000.

However…  The Pushkin people do not install belts or anything else, they are just specialists on parts.  Of course.  I asked if I can put the belt on myself.  They confirmed that it is possible.  Then he looked at me again and said ‘but you on the other hand might want a specialist to do the job’.  Wise man.

Back into the clunker, but with belt neatly next to me on the front seat.  A happy man.  I drove out to Misha, whose workshop is in a back street off to the right halfway between India and the ladies underwear display window, and he spent all of about three minutes to put it on.

I turned on the motor and the air conditioner.    Cool air flowed.

Me:  So I guess it wasn’t a question of freon?

Misha:  Guess not.

All in all, I spent one entire working day to get the belt I didn’t know existed replaced, talking to five different specialists along the way.

Another stitch in the fabric of my Armenian life.


Do Not Pee in the Circle – by Tim Straight July 13, 2010

Filed under: Tim Straight,Uncategorized — outsidersinsider @ 10:41 am
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I perhaps risk rebuke by taking up what is rather a childish subject?
There we were… Adrine, Nyree, me and our faithful driver Shiraz. We had left Yerevan an hour and a half late for our trip to Syunik to visit handicraft producers for our Homeland Handicrafts project. Hilary Clinton had managed to muck up our schedule by visiting the Cascade to have a look at Botero’s black cat statue at precisely the same time that Shiraz was to pick us up at the same black cat.

Botero's Black Cat

She could have at least called and let us know.

We successfully visited craft-producing ladies in first Goris, then Kapan, then over the magical mountains to Meghri. A fantastic journey. We met so many women who do so much wonderful work with their two hands, but don’t have a market for their products. That is our challenge, and worth a whole other blog post.
The last of our five product development workshops in three days took place in Sissian, on the way back to Yerevan. As the white fruits plopped down onto the table in the garden under a mulberry tree, we sat and had an incredibly dynamic discussion about painting on glass, straw murals, ceramics, embroidery, needlework, woodwork, about combining materials, about working together, about sharing… accompanied by generous portions of fresh fruit and homemade cherry juice. This was to be fateful.
After three hours of discussion and lots of warm goodbyes, we piled into the car and headed out of Sissian, but decided to stop by Karahunge, Armenia’s Stonehenge (‘Kar’ in Armenian means ‘stone’. Nobody knows what ‘hunge’ or ‘henge’ mean, but allow me to point out the extreme similarity… spooky). Karahunge is very near the turn off from the main road to Sissian.

Circle of Stones at Karahunge

We parked at the souvenir shop at Karahunge, I noticed that nature was calling after lots of that yummy cherry juice. I dashed ahead of the ladies out past the stones, and back around a small mound that stands at the far end of the formation. Having done the necessary, I relievedly wandered around the other side of the mound in order to head back to where the ladies were inspecting a Braille language sign explaining the site (I do wonder how many blind people actually come to Karahunge).
To my horror, I discovered that I had inadvertently peed inside the Karahunge circle of stones.
Visions of the sky falling down, lightning striking, UFOs zapping, something, raced through my head. I was distraught. One does not pee in the circle. That surely is to test the right of the stars to sparkle, the planets to spin around the sun and the Big Dipper to point at the North Star. Maybe Orion would loosen his belt and whack me with it.
I marched over to Adrine and pronounced ‘I peed in the circle’. She was unimpressed, perhaps slightly taken aback about how a man of my age can be so silly. Nyree had the same reaction, though with a bit of a snicker.
I was still uneasy. I was sure this was not a good sign.
About ten kilometers up the road towards Yerevan; Shiraz wanted to fill natural gas in the tank (not gasoline, natural gas. An amazing number of cars in Armenia use natural gas, making it one of the cleaner burning car parks in the world). I notice his furtive glance as we drive past a natural gas filling station (automekenaneri gazalicqavorman janaparhordayin kayan in it!) that is closed.
Another five kilometers or so, the car stalls.
I hear ‘You had to pee in the circle, didn’t you?’ from the back seat. We chuckle.
Shiraz manages to get the car started, and we roll down a hill, where it dies again, right in front of a group of beehives along the road (It is one of the great joys of summer in Armenia to buy jars of raw honey along the road, almost in any direction you drive from Yerevan). But as we sat there, out of natural gas, four hours behind schedule for arriving home already and tired after working flat out for three full days, the honey jars lined up on a rusty barrel along the road did not look so tempting.


‘Sorry for peeing in the circle’ I say. We chuckle again.
Shiraz convinces the honey salesman to drive him back to town to pick up a bubbly water bottle of gasoline to put in the car. Twenty minutes later we are happily back on the road, arriving in Yerevan some time after midnight rather than the 8 PM we planned on. We were exhausted, but happy.
Definitely visit Syunik. Definitely ride the cable car at Tatev once it’s finished. Definitely visit Sissian to see how Zara and Vahagn make their ceramics. Definitely visit the artisans who work inside the hollow stalagmites in Goris. Definitely make the effort to go all the way down to Meghri.
Do not pee in the circle at Karahunge.



Tiramisu and Duck by Tim Straight July 5, 2010

Filed under: Food,Tim Straight — outsidersinsider @ 8:14 am
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We all find ourselves in amusing situations now and again.  Communication gets garbled, things don’t seem to make sense, and we all have a laugh when it finally gets cleared up…’ah, thaaaaat’s what you meant’.

Now, add a thick layer of a cultural difference, and then splash no one speaking their native language over those same situations, and the comedy becomes complete.  I, a pretty much non-Armenian speaker, have found myself in more than one perplexing conversation in Armenia through the years.

I witnessed one of these situations just two days ago here in Yerevan, as I sat at an outside table at Segafredo in Northern Boulevard with two colleagues from Norway and one from Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Dag, one of the Norwegians, pointed out on the menu what he wanted:

Dag:  I would like the tiramisu with ice cream

Waiter:  I am sorry, sir, we don’t have that today

Dag:  OK, if you are sold out of tiramisu, can I have just ice cream?

Waiter:  Oh, we have the tiramisu

Dag:  So you are sold out of ice cream….

Waiter:  No, we have ice cream

Dag:  But you said you didn’t have tiramisu with ice cream

Waiter:  We have tiramisu.  And, we have ice cream.  But we don’t have the tiramisu with ice cream.

Genc(the Bosnian, to the waiter)  Are you Bosnian?

At this point all of us, waiter included, cracked up.  We never did get a real understanding of what exactly the ins and outs of the tiramisu and the ice cream and the tiramisu with ice cream were, but we certainly had a good laugh, all of us around the table having been in similar situations in many different countries earlier.

Dag, not one to lose faith easily(he’s a pastor), proceeded to challenge destiny by ordering not chocolate ice cream and not vanilla ice cream, but a MIX of chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and (am tempted to chalk this up to divine intervention) got precisely that.  The small victories are the big ones.

The tiramisu, ice cream and tiramisu with ice cream situation was preceded several years earlier by the Duck with Fries Incident at what used to be a Greek restaurant over in Alex Manukyan street.  It disappeared years ago- not the duck, the restaurant.

I don’t remember what the occasion was, but all of us on the staff of the Norwegian Refugee Council were having lunch there.  With twelve or so present, the ordering routine was winding slowly around the table, ladies first.

I had gotten used to ordering what I wanted by the number, rather than the name.  This was something restricted to cheap Chinese restaurants in my youth in the U.S., but in Armenia today it is used in most eating establishments.

For me, this is one of the best ways of avoiding language mishaps.  Saying ‘fourteen’ is a lot easier than ‘chicken fillet lightly sautéed in a spicy ginger and red pepper sauce’…  in any language, I suppose.

And then there is the enormity in length of some Armenian words.  The word in Armenian for ‘pasta’ is erkarakloraxmoratsak. No, my keyboard did not get stuck there.  That’s the word.

Need I say more?

So, when Garo the Greek waiter got to me…

Me:  Can I have a number 27 please?

Garo:  We don’t have that

Me:  Ok, a number 43 then?

Garo:  We don’t have that

Me:  Right, how about a 36?

Garo:  Nope

Me:  Tell me, what do you have today?

Garo:  We have duck with fries

Me:  Sounds good.  What number is that on the menu?

Garo:  It’s not on the menu

At this point, I looked left towards Nara, my interpreter, my eyes pleading for assistance.  She shrugged her shoulders and chuckled, indicating that it wasn’t going to get any better in her native Armenian rather than my shaky Armenian.

It is small episodes like these that make it so interesting to live in another country, to breathe another culture.  Doing so broadens horizons, tests social skills and sometimes patience, but wow, is it worth it.  And realizing that the country you live in can and does change you more than you can ever change it is something to have tucked behind your ear at all times.

There’s no place like home.

My home is where my hat is.


Not Here June 28, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — outsidersinsider @ 6:31 pm

I just wanted to make a quick mention of the fact that I am out of Armenia at the moment, and I’m crazy busy with possibly sporadic internet access!  Since this is the case, there probably won’t be any posts regarding info about living in Armenia for a couple of weeks…you will just have to be entertained by Tim, who will continue to post!

I will have more stable internet access (and a lot more time) after July 12, 2010.  I should be able to get back to giving you all the info you need and want!!  Please send me any ideas…it’s hard to think about what you need to know about living in Yerevan when you are not actually living in Yerevan!




Buying Cola in Vanadzor- by Tim Straight

Now that doesn’t sound like a very interesting topic for a blog post, does it?

A few years ago, while working for the Norwegian Refugee Council, three of my staff and I made a field trip up to Tavoush, taking the route through Vanadzor.  This was before the tunnel from Lake Sevan up towards Dilijan was reopened, cutting out eight of the 16 bends in the road as you climb up this side and down that side of the mountains.  The tunnel today makes that route a faster way to get up to Tavoush and the Georgian border.  (As a side note, I would still recommend taking the old road over the mountains from Lake Sevan and not the tunnel, as you will experience some gorgeous landscape, and also drive through a Molokan(the True Believers) village, with its incredibly nice old wooden houses with wide balconies stretched around at least two sides of the house).

So, we were on our long way back down to Yerevan after having made an all day project visit up in the village of Ptghavan, right on the Georgian border.  (I am today a proud citizen of the village of Ptghavan, thanks to that project, and have a diploma with stamp to prove it!)  Alaverdi, Vanadzor, Spitak, Aparan and home…

Tim's Ptghavan Citizenship Paper

Driving through Vanadzor, the four of us in the car decided that we would stop and get a cola after a long day of work.  We chose a tired little ‘bootka’- a small, green shoebox of a candy and cigarettes shop standing along the road, just before ‘Tim’s hole’. Yes, I once nearly destroyed a Landcruiser by running the front right tire into a large, gaping hole in the road with a very loud bang.  Thus, it was forever called ‘Tim’s hole’ until it was filled in about four years later.  I still lament this to this day, commenting ‘They have filled in my hole’ every time I drove past.

So we stopped at the bootka and I ran in to get colas for us all.  In the murkiness of the shoebox I could see a pleasant looking woman tidying up rows of cigarettes on shelves on the near wall, while a rack of chocolates stretched across the opposite(well, it kind of inched across. It was a very small shop).  A fridge stood tucked away in the corner.


Me:  Is your refrigerator working?  Do you have electricity? (Having a fridge in a bootka does not indicate that a) it works, or b) that it has electricity, I have learned the hard way.  Thus these two opening questions)

She:  Yes Yes

Me:  Do you have cola?

She:  Yes

Me:  Please give me four colas

She:  I can’t

Me:  Why not?

She:  I have only four colas

Me:  That’s how many I want.  Can I have them, please?

She:  No.  If you take all four, what will I sell to the next customer?

Literally.  Let me repeat the gist of this.  ‘If I sell you all the colas I have, I will have nothing to sell to the next customer’.

Now, I am a man of self-perceived extreme rationality, so this fascinated me.

This was not logical.

Not having either the language skills or the patience to enter into a discussion of the weakness of her argument with the woman in the bootka, I got cola-lessly back in the car and drove on.  I asked my staff members what the logic behind her argument could possibly be, thinking they as local Armenians would better understand the situation.  It did not make sense.

But no, they had no idea what she was thinking.  So, we worked out some possible theories:

  1. She was bewildered by this big very white foreigner coming into her bootka and just wanted to get rid of me.  This does happen sometimes if they feel flustered and not in control, but generally Armenians are very curious about foreigners.  So, not a likely explanation.
  2. She knew there was something wrong with the quality of the cola, and didn’t want to sell them to me, a foreigner.  This could be true, as Armenians really do care what foreigners think about their country.  It would be shameful to sell a bad cola to a foreigner.  Still, how many bad batches of cola have you ever heard of?
  3. She had regular customers who came every evening to buy cola, and preferred to make sure that they got their regular colas, rather selling them to some stranger.  Now that would make sense, but somehow I am still not at all convinced.

We, a combination of a foreigner and three locals could really not figure out what the real reason for refusing to sell us her four colas could be.  But the lack of logic did not seem to bother my staff nearly as much as it bothered me.    Me, I need to know why something is.  Armenians don’t seem to need to know.  It just is.  That’s a good quality in Armenians, the ability to just let it go.  Wish I could do that.

We found four bottles of Fanta a bit further down the road in a red bootka just past my hole.

But why in the world wouldn’t she sell us those four bottles of cola?


The Police Can’t See It – by Tim Straight June 21, 2010

Filed under: Tim Straight,Uncategorized — outsidersinsider @ 3:32 pm
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Visitors to Yerevan were always fascinated, perhaps appalled, by the lack of use of seat belts by Armenian drivers.  Putting on your seat belt is such an automatic thing to do for Westerners.  But until a year ago or so, nearly no one in Armenia used seat belts.

I had constant seat belt battles with Armen, my driver in my old job here.  He firmly believed that using a seat belt was dangerous.  We discussed it one day.

Me:  Please put on your seat belt

He:  No, it is dangerous

Me:  What?  How so?  (It was early on in our working relationship.  I was genuinely curious, as opposed to the ‘are you insane?’ reaction I developed later)

He:  If you get into an accident, it will break your collar bone

The fact that your head will go through the windshield if you don’t seemed irrelevant.

In the end, I had to inform him in writing that if he did not use his seat belt (regardless of whether I personally was in the car and not- I was catching on), that the company life insurance policy was invalid.

His reaction?

He:  How much does my family get if I get killed in an accident wearing my seat belt? (He was thinking of bargaining, I could feel it)

Me:  Fifty thousand Euros

He:  And if my wife is driving the car, do I get the money?

I ended the conversation there.

Then there was the episode where Eddie the Norwegian, starting a new job in a broadband company here, took a taxi to work the first day all dolled up in white shirt and tie.  Eddie started putting on the seat belt, but the driver told him not to.  Eddie put it on anyway.  The taxi driver shook his head.  Crazy Europeans.  When Eddie got to work, he couldn’t understand why people were staring at him.  Then a brave sole in the office pointed out the black stripe going diagonally down across the front of his white shirt, upper right to lower left.

The seat belt in the taxi had not been used in a while, if at all.

Then about a year ago, the government declared that anyone caught driving without using their seat belt would be heavily fined.  This is a government concerned about the safety of its people. This is also a new gold mine for the sticky fingers of the traffic police.

But, nooooo….  Rules are for being circumnavigated, laws are for being bent.  Even ones intended to save your life.

Quite common is that drivers will pull the seat belt across their chests, simply holding the end buckle in their right hand.  The steering wheel is gripped by the left hand alone.

Holding On

Me:  Why don’t you buckle the belt, and drive with both hands?

He:  Seat belts make me feel confined

Me:  But driving with one hand is kind of dangerous

He:  I have to have the seat belt across my chest, or the police will stop me

Me:  Then just buckle the seat belt

He:  No, the police can’t see that it isn’t buckled

Go ahead, read that conversation again.

All this makes perfect sense- to him, not me.

Gago the driver is a gem.  Always extremely service-minded and chatting away in his deep, gravelly voice, he transports me to and from the airport when I make my overseas trips.  Gago was very irritated when the new seat belt law came into effect.  It was an evil plot by the government to get money, nothing less, he insisted.

An urban myth (or not?) tells the story of a few years ago where a new law was passed in parliament whereby all passenger cars had to carry a fire extinguisher.  A very particular fire extinguisher, said the law.  And who had the exclusive import license for that very particular fire extinguisher?  You got it, a powerful member of the parliament.  So, Gago’s comment on an evil plot made me wonder who had the exclusive rights to the import of seat belts…….

Last time he picked me up, I noticed that Gago had indeed installed seat belts in his car.

Me:  Congratulations on your new seat belts

He:  Evil plot by the government

Me:  But why do you only have the belt that goes over the shoulder, and not the one that goes across the waist?

He:   The police can’t see it

Gago had his revenge.  He fooled them. He had removed the waist strap, and the police couldn’t see that he had done so when he was driving.  The fact that seat belts are intended to save lives simply never crossed his radar, or the radar of a heck of a lot of other drivers in Armenia.

Another driver really had the police fooled:

He: No need to put on your seat belt

Me: But I want to put on my seat belt

He:  Don’t you trust me?

Me: It’s not about trust, it’s the law (I had learned to dodge the whole safety issue by now)

He:  I have tinted windows.  The police can’t see it.

Sigh.  I think I have made my point clear.

Seat belts save lives.  They are not an evil plot by the government.  It is not a moral victory if the police can’t see that you’re not actually using seat belts or only have half seat belts.

Gago, and all you other drivers.  I do care about you.  Use your seat belts(all parts of it), please!

P.S.  A friend of mine came up with a brilliant idea.  T-shirts with seat belt straps and a buckle stitched onto them.  Now THAT the police would see!