How I Almost Died While Backpacking in Bolivia and Found Out Why Institutions Like OSHA Really Exist


Have you ever heard about the Darwin Awards? Every year, they award people who died in the dumbest ways you can imagine. At the same time they are a testimony to the fact that being safe and feeling safe are two quite unrelated things. I remember the day when I genuinely thought I was about to become a laureate of this prestigious award.

During that time, we did many things others would consider dangerous. We lived in rainforest for a while, went fishing on a raft we had built ourselves, and hitchhiked all across Patagonia. Yet, the only time I feared for my life was when we finally came to La Paz, Bolivia.

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe: Arrival at La Paz

It was one scary cab ride. Compared to other things we did, this should have been a uneventful transfer to hotel. And objectively, it really was. There was absolutely no risk to our lives or well-being.

But then again, maybe we shouldn’t have talked to that old woman on the bus. In less than an hour, she told us everything about fake taxi drivers in La Paz. How they lure you into their car with a confidence trick, rob you, and then leave you in the outskirts of the city at night.

After a quick google search, the danger seemed very real to us. Even more so once the bus finally arrived at the terminal and no one was leaving. They were all waiting for the sunrise. “It must really be too dangerous outside even for the locals,” we thought. What must they be doing to poor tourists like ourselves? We didn’t dare to move either.

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe: The Deaf Taxi Driver

At the break of dawn, we finally mustered enough courage and began to look for a safe cab. We knew that real taxis had to have a phone number printed on them, glowing sign on the roof, and a voice radio inside.

We rejected several of the taxi drivers who swarmed us at the entrance. Instead, we took a cab that was parked next to a police officer. By the way, did you know that La Paz is also famous for its fake policemen? Well, we did but hoped for the best.

The cab driver made us write down the address of our hotel for him, which was weird but I thought it was due to our accent. Then I noticed he didn’t have a radio inside. Only fake taxis don’t have a radio! But it was too late for thinking about that, the car had already begun to move.

Crutching my phone in hand, I was following our location on Google Maps. So far so good. Then suddenly, the car turned into a narrow dark alley, my battery died and I started screaming “No, no, no, no, señor!”

Do you remember how the driver wanted me to write down the address of our hotel? Well, he was almost completely deaf, which is why he paid no attention to my screams. Moreover, a deaf taxi driver has no use for a radio.

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe: My Hysterical Outburst

None of this occurred to me at that moment. I was too busy being petrified by a bin lorry that just blocked the street.

Do you know those scenes from Hollywood movies? You know, the ones where a truck blocks a street while a group of gangsters pulls passengers out of their car. Well, that’s exactly what was going through my head at that very moment. I was certain we were about to get abducted, robbed, raped, and killed off in the end.

Fortunately, this story is somewhat anti-climactic. The taxi driver was a lovely guy who took us exactly where we wanted to. Nothing bad happened to us and La Paz is probably much safer than we were led to believe.

Still, I felt the danger was very real. For some time, I believed it was simply because I’m a wuss. But what if it had little to do with me being a chicken? What if my hysterical reaction can tell us something essential about how humans experience danger?

being safe vs feeling safe

Being save vs. Feeling Safe: Security Is a Trade-Off

Human beings, including me, seem to be hopelessly bad at identifying dangerous situations. Just skim through the Darwin Awards Facebook page.

Immediately, you’ll find a story of a man who got trampled to death by an angry elephant while trying to make a selfie with him. Or story of a college graduate who fell into a spring of boiling acidic water as he was reaching down to check if the water temperature.

Most of these deaths have a lot do with the fact that humans are terrible at making the right security trade-offs. And when you think about it, security is always a trade-off. It comes at a price of convenience, money, time, liberties, and so on.

For instance, you trade the inconvenience of having to carry a key around in your pocket for some additional home security. Similarly, you trade the liberty of making up-close selfies with animals against the security from being trampled to death by an elephant. But you can also do the opposite and trade the security of staying at home against the liberty of hitchhiking across South america.

In my case, it worked out. I made the right security trade-offs. On the other hand, people who received the Darwin Award made a terrible trade-off and now they’re…well, dead.

being safe vs feeling safe

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe: Cognitive Biases

It’s surprisingly difficult to make correct security trade-offs consistently. Humans are, above all, prone to all kinds of cognitive biases. Selecting only few among many:

  • Most people are less afraid of risks that are natural than those that are human-made.
  • Most people are less afraid of a risk they choose to take rather than a risk imposed on them.
  • Most people are less afraid of a risk they feel they have some control over.
  • Most people are more afraid of risks that we are more aware of and less afraid of risks they are less aware of.

You can probably already trace these biases across my story.

  • While backpacking, I was never afraid to take risks inherently present in nature. The first time I really feared for my life was when I encountered a human-made danger.
  • I felt much better when I was able to reject the taxi drivers who approached me first. Instead, I picked one who allowed me to choose freely.
  • I started panicking once I was completely at mercy of our driver. The moment my phone died, I lost even the last bit of control over the situation.
  • Everything would have probably been fine if the old lady on the bus didn’t tell us all the scary stories. I was overly aware of the risk.

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe: Why Does OSHA Exist?

Human brain is a fascinating organ, but an absolute mess. Since assessing and reacting to risk is one of the most important things a living creature has to deal with, there’a very primitive part of the brain that deals just with that. However, this primitive part of the brain only works consistently well when faced with the most immediate and obvious threats.

We know the world is more complicated than that. Some scary things are not as dangerous as they seem, others are not scary at all but will kill you just as surely. Moreover, often it can be useful to stay in a dangerous situation and a work out a more sophisticated analysis of the situation.

At the core of the problem lies the facts that we humans have two ways of reacting to risk. First, a primitive system which reacts intuitively. Second, we have the ability of analytical reasoning. However, these two operate in parallel and it’s hard for reason to counter our instincts.

Once you see it this way, even insanely boring jobs like “health and safety inspector” suddenly seem interesting! They’re are fighting an almost existential battle against human nature itself!

If you’re wondering about those cute animated gifs in the article, they come from a song called “Dumb Ways to Die”. You can listen to it here

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