Do you have an expat escape plan?

Baku fire“Get out, the building’s on fire!”  What would you do?  What would you grab?  How many of us have given that serious thought, much less planned for it?

When we moved to Baku we were advised to always have a wad of cash on hand (in an easily convertible currency) in case we had to leave in a hurry.  This was 1996 and incoming BA flights diverted to avoid flying over Grozny, just the other side of the Caucus mountains and Azerbaijan itself had only relatively recently signed a truce with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

We called it our “running way money,” and we kept it under the ice cream in our chest freezer, the only place in the apartment with a lock and key.  One thousand dollars of cold hard cash (quite literally) in new bills.

Fortunately we never had to evacuate for security reasons.  In fact Baku turned out to be a very safe place to live, but there was a morning when we did have to get out in a hurry.

At 6am one Tuesday morning we woke to a loud pounding on our door.  A quick glance through the peep hole revealed my American neighbour, clad in her nightgown.  “The building’s on fire, we need to get out.  Now!”  I could already see tendrils of smoke drifting up the stairwell and the alarm in her eyes told me this was serious.  I shook my son awake (he’d sleep through WW3).  My husband grabbed the passports and the running away money.  I grabbed my jewelry roll in the bedside drawer together with our coats and we headed out the door.

The source of the smoke was an electrical fire in a single storey garage attached to the back of the building.  Hardly surprising given the poor state of the wiring (click on the photo to enlarge it and you’ll what I mean).  In fact it’s amazing we didn’t have fires every day.  You’ll be glad to hear it was extinguished before it did any damage to the main building and soon we were able to return to our apartment and get on with our day.

But this episode highlighted for me the importance of always knowing a) how to exit my home quickly and b) exactly what to grab and take with me.  We started keeping everything in one place (passports, money, important documents), together with a bag we could quickly scoop it all into.

While this is good policy for anyone, it’s particularly important for expats.  Passports usually contain your residence visas and important documents issued in your home country may be impossible to replace without showing up in person.

Present day technology, including cloud storage and mobile devices has given us many more options for keeping things safe.  Documents can be scanned, photos, music, videos and even books can be digital and stored online.  My mission in 2012 was to make my life as paperless as possible and I’ll be sharing some of my favourite tools and experiences in upcoming posts.


18 thoughts on “Do you have an expat escape plan?

  1. Hi Judy, Thanks for the reminder ! When I was living in Tokyo we were supposed to have a set ready in case of earthquake but I must admit I never had big amount of extra money, our passports and other important things in one safe place. I am living in the center of Moscow with old buildings so electric fires are probably quite frequent here and will follow your advises.

    • Just to scare you to death, there were also several gas explosions while we lived in Baku, although none in our building thank goodness. At that time the gas had no smell (most jurisdictions add smell for safety). In winter people would often leave a gas fire on when they went out as there was no other form of heating, but if the gas pressure dropped the flame could go out and when the returned and turned the lights on … kaboom!

  2. Thanks Judy, I was thinking along similar lines after reading a post from The Expat Child about dealing with emergencies. It’s easy for expats to get mired in a sea of paperwork as they manage documents pertaining to multiple locations. Having a separate “Emergency File” (whether on paper, USB stick or cloud storage) is a wise idea. “Organisation” is the expat mantra!

  3. I managed to keep all the important “stuff” together when we were in Kenya. It was easy because we had a safe and we had so little stuff. Back in the U.S., all our important things are spread throughout our apartment, so maybe I should do a better job. As you point out, at the very least, I could scan important documents onto the computer.

  4. Pingback: How to cope when things go wrong - Your Expat Child

  5. Hi Judy, Have been trawling your blog for info as we have the opportunity to move to Baku for a couple of years and we are looking for some insider information! How long ago did you leave because I believe its an ever changing city at the moment! Thanks so much in advance for any info.

    • Hi Katie. I left centuries ago, well 1999 to be exact, so yes it has changed significantly. You won’t be living in a crumbling soviet apartment with dodgy wiring unless you really want to 🙂 I visited to stay with a local friend in 2007 and the place had changed significantly. The central area at least was looking a lot better, shopping was transformed, it was a much “easier” place to live. However corruption remains rife, which won’t affect you too much unless you’re working in which case you’ll run into it in business transactions. Have you contacted the International Women’s Club or even the British Chamber of Commerce in Baku? Both should be able to put you in touch with someone who can provide you with “inside information.” Good luck. Looking back I can say I spent some of my best expat days there, although there were times when it did my head in! 😉

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