Adam has 120 seconds to pack up his life and get out. It is surprisingly easy.
I was lying in bed in the early evening trying to position my neck in a happy place when I heard the three repeated beeps coming from the hallway, followed by an indistinct recorded announcement. After a few seconds I bestirred myself and went out and stuck my head into the hallway of my rented condo building in Mandaue, an industrial part of Cebu. The announcement, blessedly in English, said:
“There is a fire emergency in the building. Please evacuate immediately. Do not use the elevator.”
Down the hall I noticed people beginning to leave their rooms, though not as many as I would expect (whether this is down to a lot of people being out, the building being underrented, or a general blasé attitude about such things, I do not know). Not smelling any smoke or seeing any sign of anything wrong, I suspected a false alarm strongly, but on the other hand, I was on the seventh floor and being in a part of the world where I couldn’t count on robust enforcement of building codes or fire regulations, I would be foolish not to take this very seriously.
That said, without some evidence of clear and present danger, I wasn’t going to just run out as I was. If it was a fire emergency, and this was my last access to my stuff, moving too quickly without bringing anything could be extremely dangerous to my well-being in a foreign country. I had to get out, yes, but not just yet.
Back into the room I went swiftly. First: change out of my sweat pants into one of my all-purpose convertible travel pants. Grab my passport. Scoop up both cell phones. Put on my hiking boots, not the sandals, even though they took longer to get on and had a tangled knot I didn’t have time to undo. Laptop into my backpack. I then paused briefly, and went back to my CPAP machine. Though bulky, it would be hard to replace and I have a difficult time sleeping without it. I dismantled it and crammed it into the backpack. I grabbed my prescription glasses, which were sitting on the desk. And then I grabbed what I thought was my only long-sleeve pullover though when I got downstairs it turned out to be another pair of sweat pants. Oh well. You can’t win ’em all.
The whole exercise took, I would guess, 120 seconds. Then I locked the door and quickly but carefully (given my untied boot) negotiated the seven flights down to the parking lot, where there were perhaps eight or ten other residents – again, an oddly small number – milling around as a security guard strolled with great purpose towards the elevator, speaking urgently into a walkie talkie in Cebuano.
As I stood there waiting for the all clear, I asked myself what I had forgotten, that if this turned out to be the real deal, what thing I would be kicking myself for having left behind. I realized that the answer was nothing much. There was some music gear, some clothes, my travel guitar. Backup hard drive would have been nice to grab but all the big stuff was backed up on the laptop. Really, if I escaped with just the stuff I had on me, those items I had scooped up in two minutes, I would be just fine.
That was an amazing realization. There was an eight month process of whittling my life down back in 2017, selling off things that were once dear to me, a process that will continue (and get more painful) during my two months home. But once I left the U.S., my entire life was limited to just 44 kg and, after the painful purge at Kuala Lumpur airport where I had to quickly discard 7kg of my stuff, just 37kg. Every time I packed up, I knew how to get it to fit. Every time I moved into new lodgings, I knew exactly what to take out and where to put it. My whole life fits into a backpack, a large duffel, and a yoga mat. And I rarely want for, or miss, anything else. Think of the kinds of decisions you’d have to make in your own house if you had 120 seconds to pack up and get out, the things you’d need to leave behind. The fact that I’d just made that decision and gotten out with basically everything I really needed to survive blew my mind.
After about 20 minutes all of the other residents filed towards the elevator as if they’d gotten some silent signal on the wind. I went to the security guard to ask if it was OK to go back but he asked me to “wait for a while, sir” which really translates to “wait a minute more.” So I stayed put for a bit longer, feeling foolish, until five minutes later he told me it was safe to go back. A male Korean resident, he said with eyes rolling, had elected to cook dinner under the smoke alarm. He would be duly reported.
And so I went back. After a year in Asia I’ve been taking stock of the things I’ve gained and accomplished during that period. A lot of the changes are really subtle and hard to spot. But being able to put your life on your back successfully in under two minutes and get out in an emergency – wow. If you think about it…that’s really good stuff.