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Car Accident In San Juan Shows Me Why We Travel

The best thing about travel is perhaps the fact that you have no idea what’s going to happen.

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico-  The continuous frolicking with chance and serendipity, the weaving of unexpected tales, cultivating the weird, and having experience that we couldn’t make up even if we tried is why we travel.

I’ll put it like that.

I was hanging out with a friend in El Batey in Old San Juan. I knew this person had been drinking because I was drinking with them but I didn’t think much of it when we go into their car. Driving intoxicated seems to be a San Juan staple — I’ve even had multiple sauced Uber drivers. But what I didn’t expect was that we’d plow right into a row of stopped cars in front of us.

We were on the highway that cuts across the north part of the city, and for some reason traffic went from full speed to full stop … except for us. I saw the brake lights in front of us, looked over at my friend who was staring straight ahead but wasn’t slowing down. “Uh, you may want to stop,” I stammered. Too lated. I sat helplessly as we skidded into the back of the car in front of us and watched the hood crumpled up in front of the windshield. I have no idea how fast we were going but we buckled forward into the dashboard, the seatbelts doing their thing only to the extent that they kept us from slamming into the glass in front of us. A little whiplash but we were otherwise fine.

“Well, I guess that’s the night,” was my first thought.

“What happens now?” was my second.

We were on the shoulder of a six-lane expressway. Can I just walk away? Do Ubers pick up mid-expressway?

I walked to the front of the vehicle. The driver from the car in front of us as well as four dudes from the car in front of him — apparently, he bumped the car in front of him after we struck him — we’re gathered around the front of our car. It was demolished. The hood was crumpled, the headlights were buckled in and facing in askance directions, part of the radiator was exposed. There was no fixing this.

But to the surprise of everyone there was hardly a scratch on the car that we plowed into. I’m not sure how it happened, but the bumper on this car was solid. I don’t know my cars, but it was a kind that looked like those cops used to drive in the 80s and early 90s in the USA. The bumper was made of steel and stuck out from the rest of the vehicle … and it totally won that encounter.

“Well, if there’s no damage can we just drive away?” my friend asked.

The other driver just shrugged, returned to his vehicle, and drove off. The dudes from the car in front of him did the same. We were then left on the side of the expressway with cars flying by us with a car with a smashed in front end. “Maybe it will start.” It did. Smoke billowed out from the engine and it made a horrid grinding noise, but it started. “Maybe I can still drive it.” It went. The engine roared as we crept forward but wouldn’t propel us faster than 20 MPH. We limped off the highway at the next exit.

So there I was riding in a smoking car with a crumpled front end with crosseyed headlights through the streets of San Juan. People on the streets were pointing at us. It was probably deserved. My friend had a coworker who lived nearby and we slowly made our way over to her neighborhood and parked in the street. And that’s where we left it.


On the Uber ride home I was picked up by a Donald Trump impersonator who does a show about being an Uber driver. Putting his passenger cam to use, he drives around the party areas of San Juan at night picking up drunk people. They party in the car and he posts the videos to Instagram. He showed me his channel. It was kind of like that Comedy Central taxi cab show … only for real and with actually drunk people. Apparently, this gets him women — some of whom are his passengers, he shared. He told me how he keeps one of his score’s panties in his glovebox for good luck. I called him on it. He took them out and showed me.

What random shit.

While nothing too crazy actually happened on this night and I ultimately came out of it with nothing worse than a sore neck I was left to ponder the continuous interplay of chance, probability and possibility, and how travel maximizes this to its fullest extent. It’s the random shit that you ultimately travel for — the things you couldn’t possibly imagine. When I woke up that morning there’s no chance that I would have been able to predict what happened that night. Every morning of travel is like this and you wake up knowing that you don’t know what lies on the path ahead of you that day. This feeling cannot be replicated any other way, and is perhaps what I like most about the profession.

The prime directive of travel may not be to enjoy yourself but to nip at the heels chance and serendipity, going places just to find out what happens there.


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Filed under: Danger, Puerto Rico, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3723 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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  • Blake June 27, 2023, 12:56 pm

    This is a crazy story! I’m glad everyone was okay and it’s great to see you traveling again. I’m excited to see more posts and hopefully youtube videos too if you have time. I first discovered your site through your youtube video about the crazy traffic in Taizhou. I lived there for several years, but after you had left. I loved those videos about life in China and your stuff on ghost cities. I loved the Ghost Cities book as well. I haven’t read the Belt and Road one yet. Any plans to write another book in the future?

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    • VBJ June 27, 2023, 9:31 pm

      Thank you, man! Yes, back to publishing a little on YouTube. I will have some first person narrative stuff published soon to kind of hold the rest together. Just trying to get finished with some long standing projects first. Getting through it … Cool that you lived in Taizhou. It’s actually an interesting place. I imagine most of the old sections were gone by the time you got there. Thanks for reading my ghost cities book! I imagine I’ll write another book at some point but they just take so much time … and the work is kind of grueling. But I guess I have a masochistic streak so I’ll probably do it again!

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