Limited without limits – 24,488km female Indonesian solo journey | FEATURE
The world is full of remarkable and inspiring people, Shinta Utami is one of them. Not only has Shinta had to live with and overcome many hurdles during her life but she’s come through them stronger and more resilient as a result. Growing up with a disability caused by polio, constant bullying and being written off by many who should have known better, she lived her life expecting to take her own life before the age of 30.
The freedom of a specially converted scooter changed things though, it opened her eyes to becoming independent, gave her the strength and courage to explore way beyond the comfort zone of most of us and started a yearning for freedom, adventure and gave her a purpose in life. We had a chat with Shinta to discover more about this inspiring woman, a woman who seems to get dealt a raw deal but comes through the other side smiling. Even though she’s now confined to a wheelchair she’s still planning more solo trips…
Tell us a bit about yourself and where you live:
My name is Shinta Utami, People call me Shinta. I live in Bali, Indonesia. I am not originally from Bali but I work here as a (home-school) teacher.
What’s the culture like in Indonesia?
Indonesia is a huge country and every province has its own culture and language. For most Indonesians, Bahasa Indonesia is their second language and we have around 300 languages in Indonesia. Indonesian people are famous for being really kind, even to strangers. If you are not used to it, you probably might think they are a bit intrusive but believe me, they are just trying to be nice.
How old were you when you got polio?
I was 4 years old when I contracted polio. I didn’t really realize that I was different until I reached puberty and started to become aware of my body. I mean my peers made fun of the way I walked all the time. But, I fought them back when I was little and it didn’t bother me much. When I was little I kept on wondering why I wasn’t allowed to do lots of things. I heard lots of “You can’t do this and you can’t do that” without even letting me try to do it, or further explanations.
Were you discriminated against?
At grade 7, I wanted to go to boarding school but was refused because of my disability. After my parents insisted and based on my scores I got accepted and I went to that boarding school for three years. I started to notice so many discriminations toward me.
In Indonesia, there was a big stigma that if you have a disability, you must be gifted (good in music and art etc.) but I was just an ordinary kid. People around me made cruel comments almost every time they saw me. Comments like, ‘There is no use going to school because I am not going anywhere in life anyway’, or ‘No one would ever want me and I am just a burden’, or ‘How pretty I am and it is too bad I have a disability.’ Some people even thought my disability was contagious.
How did it affect you?
My family sought a lot of help for my physical being and I went through so many treatments and therapies. But they forgot about my mental health. The problem is people don’t really talk about mental health in Indonesia. Receiving so many rejections from society affected my mental health very badly. When I was in university my mental health went downhill. I was really depressed and I didn’t want to live anymore. I had always wanted to die at 30. I had only one coping mechanism in life, which was death. But I guess there was a little part of me which didn’t want to give up on me.
Do you think it encouraged you to seek adventure, to prove you could still enjoy life?
I am the kind of girl who always loved adventures but adventures were just a dream before, a dream that I was thinking would never come true, But I was wrong. My scooter was the best thing that ever happened to me. Being able to ride my scooter gave me freedom and helped me build my confidence. With my scooter, I was able to see places that I always wanted to go and experience things like other people. My archipelago journey has helped me to heal myself, built my confidence and made me realise that nothing is impossible.
The adventures are not to prove that I can still enjoy life, but it gave me life. And surprisingly my adventures also inspire other people’s lives.”
When did you first ride a scooter and what was it?
I was 28. In July 2013 that was the first time I ever rode a scooter. My father modified a scooter for me for city riding only. The plan was to make it easier for me so I didn’t have to use public transportation for work. But I was terrified because I had never ridden any scooter, I can’t even ride a bicycle. I remember I learned how to ride it within a week. Long story short, I quit my job and my friend asked me to travel with him with the scooter. He said, we can travel and I can practise riding the scooter. Well, I always loved travelling and it sounded like a good idea. But first, I needed to pick him up from the airport, and from my parent’s house to the airport is about 164 km. I only learned how to ride the scooter for a week before I had to travel 164 km all by myself.
The road in Sumatra was so difficult with so many holes on the road and bumpy asphalt and not to mention all the trucks and bus drivers who try to kill you. I was so scared and my father kept insisting it’s better to send the scooter to the airport and use my scooter when I am with my friend. But, my friend said, “What’s the point of having a scooter if you don’t use it?” So, I did. I rode my scooter and after about 30 km I fell off it and one of the men who was helping me says “How come you still fell off with four wheels?”. I didn’t say anything, just laughed. The scooter wouldn’t start after the crash and I pushed it to the nearest mechanic shop. I was crying and laughing at the same time but I remember I was so happy that I could go wherever I wanted to go. I made it to the airport and my friend was so proud of me. I was so proud of myself too because I never thought I could do that, not even in my wildest dreams.
From gaining that taste of freedom what made you want to ride long distance alone?
On my travels, with my friend, I met so many amazing people, people who ran across Australia, swam the Mekong river, cycled around the world within three months and so many people who did things that I thought was not possible. So I realised that nothing is impossible.
Freedom is addictive and I also love to challenge myself. When I was in high school I read so many books about other places. I was thinking because I can ride my scooter now why don’t I go and visit those places that I always wanted to go to?
Had you had much riding experience by then?
I travelled for seven months with my friend and we took turns to ride, though mostly he rode the scooter because I kept dropping it or falling off. So my experience when I set off all by myself was enough but not good enough. I mean, I was able to ride on nice asphalt but I was still really nervous about bad roads (which are almost everywhere) and still didn’t know how to go from the asphalt to the shoulder of the roads if the shoulder of the roads is too low. But I was confident enough I could do it.
How much planning went into your trip across the country?
Not much, about two or three months. People kept telling me I had to wait for this and that, but I couldn’t wait. I was so nervous because my thirtieth birthday was coming soon and I hadn’t done much in my life. I didn’t have fancy equipment and didn’t have much money but I had the confidence that I could do it so I just went. I only had my phone, which I use as my GPS, camera and for everything, a sleeping mattress and a tent. The first day was the hardest because my scooter broke down three times and I was worried because it was my first time sleeping alone outside in the middle of nowhere but after the first night I started getting really good at it.
Tell us a bit about the trip and the scooter you used?
I used a modified 4 wheeler Honda Scoopy 110cc and drove 24,488 km around every province in Indonesia, as well as Brunei and East Malaysia. I started in October 2014 and finished in October 2015, 1 year 5 days.
The quality of Indonesian roads is very unpredictable. Sometimes the roads are good, and sometimes the roads are very hard to ride on. When I was in Kalimantan (Borneo) I almost gave up because the roads were so bad and my scooter broke down so many times. Some roads were just red dirt and some were rocks.
Once my scooter broke down in the forest in Kalimantan and a truck driver came to help me and I was complaining about how bad the roads were and he told me the roads are quite good now because usually, it took him two weeks to travel about 350 km and now it was only 5 days. We laughed it off.
What was wrong with the scooter?
The scooter itself didn’t break down so much but it was the attachment for the extra wheels that caused so many problems. Because the attachment for my extra wheels attached to the crankcase, to repair it we needed to overhaul the whole thing so it took a few days to repair. Most of my technical problems were just my extra wheels’ attachment and some minor issues like my V-belt breaking and my front lights kept breaking too. What made these technical problems worse was bad mechanics. Yes, this happened to me so many times. I took the scooter to the shop and the mechanic made it worse.
Other than mechanical problems, my biggest problem was the toilet. I fall over easily. And most toilets weren’t accessible with the steps and were really slippery. I was really struggling with the toilet. But the scooter made it possible to find another toilet that was easier for me to use and in the worst case if I couldn’t find one I had to ask people to help me or use side roads. Yes. Side roads.
Give us your three favourite moments/experiences from the trip:
I have so many favourite moments but the most unforgettable one is when I was stuck for three days on a ferry with lots of animals. When I arrived in East Indonesia I didn’t realise that transportation was a big issue there. I wanted to go to Papua and the ferry schedules were unreliable. Sometimes you can be stuck on one island for a month without a ferry coming. So, I took the ferry and I was excited that I could finally go to Papua and be able to see the land that I longed to see for a long time.
There were no rooms on the ferry so people were just finding their own space and putting a mat on the floor. I placed my mat next to my scooter, and other passengers took their places. Not long after we settled on the floor there were announcements that we needed to stand up and give way because some cows needed to get on the ferry. Usually, when they transport the cows they place them inside the trucks and the trucks will carry them. But this one was different, the cows walked straight on the ferry and there were about twenty of them next to me. Basically, for three days I was sleeping next to them with all their excrement. And cows weren’t the only animals, there were chickens, goats, lobsters, birds and fish.
After a day sleeping next to the cattle, my nose got used to all the smells. The crew had asked me to move to sleep next to the goats because they felt sorry for me but I can’t stand goat smells so I chose to sleep next to the cows.
What made my trip unforgettable were the people that I met along the way. So many people were really kind to me. Random strangers paying for my food or opening their house for this lone woman, or helping me when I needed help. It was purely a blessing. And I came to believe that most people are kind. I stayed with so many families and they all have a place in my heart. But once I stayed with a family who take care of a Buddhist temple on the cliff. This family has so many animals. From wild boar, pigs, chickens, cats, dogs, and deer. They also have an eight-year-old son who is really smart. I hung out with this little boy a lot and we became best friends. He is also the sweetest boy ever. When I was struggling to walk he made me a walking stick from some wood that he found. He can also copy all the animals’ sounds. It was hard to leave that family because they made me feel like I was home.
Also your three scariest or most worrying times?
The first one, when I was in Sulawesi, I avoided the conflict area because four days before I was there, there was the terrorist kidnapping of a local and they shot him in the head. Usually, terrorists never bother civilians and they only fight the police. I changed my route and went to another town without knowing if the terrorists had arrived in that area. It was terrifying. Police checkpoints were everywhere and I got questioned a lot and most of the police in the police station were sitting with their rifles.
The second and third one was when I was in Sumatra. Sumatra was the island where I started my journey but also my last island. I thought nothing could possibly go wrong in Sumatra because I knew this island very well and I had ridden it before a few times. But, boy was I wrong.
There were only four provinces left before I finished my journey. It was morning and I wanted to have a drink, I was stopped waiting to turn around when another bike crashed into my scooter from the back. My scooter fell over and my leg was trapped under it. The teenager who crashed into me flew off his scooter a few metres away. My leg was swollen and my scooter ruined. I wanted to call the police and asked for people to help but no one wanted to call the police and the uncle of the teenager came to me and threatened me.
The teenager didn’t have a license nor was he wearing a helmet. Because no one wanted to call the police, I asked around about the nearest police station and it was 10 km away. So, I drove to the station with my ruined scooter and swollen leg (I was lucky the scooter was still moving) only to find the policemen there trying to find fault with me and they said it’s their culture that young people are allowed to drive without a license etc. I didn’t do anything wrong so I wasn’t afraid. After arguing for a long time, I called the chief of policemen around that area that I knew from my uncle’s connections. The chief policeman called me and talked to the police there and finally, the policemen processed my report and were really nice to me. I just wanted the teenager to pay for all the damage he caused to my scooter. They finally gave me a little bit of money.
We went to a mechanic and fixed my scooter a little bit, just to make me able to ride it to the nearest town. I rode there and went to a big mechanic shop. The shop was finally able to fix my scooter but they forgot to tighten one of my extra wheels. I took the scooter from the shop and rode it about 2 km before the wheel came off and I fell off it. Some days you just can’t win, can you?
Also in Sumatra, Usually I started looking for a place to sleep for an hour before it got dark. Once it was pouring with rain and I had to stop at a petrol station and decided to stay a night there. The guy who was working at the petrol station gave me permission to sleep there so I slept in the porch area so I could see my scooter.
I didn’t know that village specifically was full of bars, gambling places and prostitution. So, lots of crimes happened there.”
I’d almost fallen asleep when a guy came to my scooter and tried to push it over but he couldn’t because my scooter is a 4-wheeler. He went away but came back half an hour later and crashed into my scooter. Again, my scooter was fine because my back rack was solid metal so he just ruined his own scooter, he went away. But later he came back again with his friends and I was so angry that I confronted him. He basically wanted money from me and threatened me. I told him I was going to call the police but couldn’t get through. The terror went on for hours before I was finally able to call the police and the police came around after midnight and told him and his friends to leave me alone.
Would you like to do a similar ride again, maybe away from Indonesia?
I’ve been planning my round the world trip for almost two years now and basically, I am ready to go but I don’t have enough funds yet. I don’t have any savings left because I used all my savings to fund my Indonesian journey. In Indonesia, incomes are really low so if I want to travel the world I need to save up for 20 years before I can do it. I am looking for sponsors that are willing to help me with the funds for the trip and hopefully, I can find them soon. If I can’t find any sponsors, I will save up my money and will probably go with the wheelchair instead.
I believe your health has suffered recently, leaving you confined to a wheelchair?
I fell off my scooter and I tore three of the ligaments in my left ankle. Usual, y ligaments can heal themselves but because I walk at a funny angle the doctor is not sure. The doctor has suggested surgery but is also not sure if it’s going to be successful. I can still walk about 10 meters or more if I really force it but it’s really painful and it gets swollen if I walk too much.
Is that likely to improve?
I am not sure, but I don’t want to have any surgery in Indonesia because they have done it badly a few times in the past. I can still walk a little bit now and I don’t want to risk it at this age, and after tons of treatments and therapies in the past I know that my leg problem is not going to improve, in fact, it is probably going to get worse. I have known this for a long time and it’s bit scary but it’s not the end of the world.
Tell our readers a little about your wheelchair adventures…
I was so angry and sad when I had to use a wheelchair. Because it was like a nightmare come true. In a time of desperation, I started to watch YouTube videos about people in wheelchairs and saw people being really active in them. I learned some tricks from YouTube like going up and down kerbs, going up and down escalators and how to use your wheelchair in general. And it changed my perspective about them.
I started to ask wheelchair users around me about their use. I was shocked to find out that most of the people aren’t active and don’t really go out much unless they have someone coming with them. It turned out accessibility is also one of the biggest problems. I saw this as an opportunity to raise issues about accessibility for people with a disability in Indonesia and to raise money for my around the world trip. This trip will be about inspiration and liberation. I will also attempt to break the Guinness world record for the longest journey on a vehicle operated by hand controls.
I didn’t have the money to hire a personal trainer so I trained myself every day. It was difficult at first and I fell over my wheelchair so many times and scared people around me. I trained myself on some busy roads in Jakarta along with crazy traffic. A lot of people stopped and gave me money (they thought I was a beggar) or were willing to give me a ride because a girl in a wheelchair by herself on the roads was something uncommon to see.
When I came up with this idea, no one believed in me and they thought I was crazy, except for one person, Scott Thompson. He had done some amazing things himself, like run across the Sahara and run from Bali to Jakarta and he rode a rickshaw 1000 km for a charity. I went to him for support and he became my mentor. I finally did my 530 km within 18 days and it felt so amazing. Along the way, I stopped at the government offices and met so many organizations and shared my knowledge about the importance of accessibility for people with a disability. I failed to raise the money to fund my around the world trip but at least I succeeded in raising awareness about the importance of accessibility for people with a disability. The most important thing is that my journey also inspires other people to realise that nothing is impossible.
Recently I went on holiday without my bike, just me and my wheelchair. I went to Singapore and Malaysia because I knew Singapore would be accessible and I am already familiar with Malaysia. I just wanted to see if it’s possible to travel, just me and my wheelchair. I cried a lot during this holiday because I felt so overwhelmed with happiness. My wheelchair made me able to walk like other people. On this holiday I was wheeling my wheelchair everywhere because I was so happy that I could walk a lot. A lot of people were asking me why I travelled alone and why no one was helping me because it turned out it’s also uncommon for people in wheelchairs to travel all by themselves. The funny thing is every time I stopped at a restaurant and was about to leave I kept looking for my bike key.
What does the future hold for you, more adventures?
I really hope so, I’m always open to new adventures. This year, I really hope I can travel on my bike from Indonesia to Ireland and to make a Guinness World Record for the longest journey in a vehicle operated by hand controls.
I have a new bike now, a modified Honda Verza 150 cc that was given to me by the Indonesia Big Bike Association from Bogor. This bike has full hand controls, the clutch and the gear on the left hand and on the right hand are the back and the front brakes. I also want to wheel my wheelchair across Ireland or do the pilgrimage route “Santiago de Compostella”.
Do you think being female makes solo travel easier or harder?
I would say both, easy and hard. In my case, it was easy to ask for help simply because you are a woman and people trusted you more. But, also being a woman people look at you as an easy target too. Many men were trying to sleep with me, even though I was wearing really conservative clothes.
In some places, it was hard to find a place to sleep because I wasn’t allowed to sleep there because I am a woman. Once it took more than half an hour of convincing people before I was allowed to sleep in that area because I am a woman.
With the mechanical issues too, most mechanics are men and in my experience, they get offended if I appeared more knowledgeable about my scooter than them. I talked to other fellow travellers too and male travellers also had similar problems with the mechanics. But so many times they underestimated my knowledge about my bike because I am a woman. I don’t know much about mechanics but I do know about my own scooter.
What message would you give to our readers who may be inspired to push their own boundaries?
Have you ever watched the ‘Tinkerbell’ movie? I always think she and I are similar, except I ride a bike and she can fly. Growing up I believed that I was nothing. The people around me and society made me believe I was nothing. My life started when I was 30 after I finished my trip. That was when I realised I could do whatever I wanted to do if I set my mind to it. I maybe don’t have any special gifts but I believe I am unique in my own way.
I still struggle in life and this might sound cliché, but based on my experience now I believe everything is a matter of perspective and we are only limited by the limits we set for ourselves.”
Is there anything you would like to add or share?
The most important thing that I have learned is if there is a will, there is a way. Never give up on your dreams! Whatever your dream might be…
Where can people read about your travels?
My blog : www.limitedwithoutlimits.com
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