Andrew Shelley: Exploring ‘Beyond the Chair’
At age 27, Andrew Shelley quit his engineering job with a plan to travel the world. He wanted to break out of the 9-5 doldrums, to meet people, explore and connect. But Andrew’s trip would be different from other ‘round-the-world backpackers in one very significant way: he’d be undertaking the entire journey in a wheelchair.
This was no ordinary chair however, just as it would be no ordinary trip. Andrew would be in the Frontier X5, an all-terrain powerchair that could easily navigate the sort of rugged terrain he craved. Finding the X5 helped Andrew reconcile with the fact that the effects of muscular dystrophy had made its use increasingly essential. Never one to let fear govern his life, he picked stops in New Zealand, Cambodia, India and Thailand leaving more wheelchair friendly destinations off the itinerary. Over the course of two months in 2007, the chair’s ability to go off road and its pilot’s indominatible spirit created a recipe for true adventure.
Andrew’s travels were filmed by documentarians Dusty Duprel and Rachel Pandza and the resulting movie is currently being submitted to festivals across the country. Early clips and trailers reveal a man on a search for meaning, battling the limitations of his body and deeply in love with life on the road. This week, with the crew getting closer and closer to a final cut of Beyond the Chair, Andrew found time to share his stories and insight with How I Travel.
I was born in the Philippines and later lived in South Africa and Dubai so I grew up traveling back and forth between California and those places.
I was with my parents and we were always either going on home-leave back to the states during the summer or flying to a new place. I loved moving to new places—I always got bored living in just one spot. I enjoy learning how others live and that there isn’t just one way.
I’ve been to places you’d never imagine a power wheelchair would go—the top of Fox glacier in New Zealand, the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, trekking in Thailand, train travel in India, and the sand dunes of Dubai to name a few.
I’m not going to give up what I want to do because of some limitations.
Going on a two month journey through New Zealand, Cambodia, Thailand, and India is not without risks.
I rely on a respirator for breathing that would be likely fail in the harsh environments I’d be entering. The last time I went without it I got Pneumonia, and with my weakened immune system that could be a fatal scenario if untreated. And of course if my powerchair broke down I would lose all mobility and the services to get it repaired don’t exist where I was going. Plus there are all the risks that regular travelers face.
I’m a vagabond type traveler – I try to make plans but then end up doing something completely different because I like to do what I feel like.
If I talk to someone and they tell me about a cool place I’ll go there. [I love] waking up in the morning and saying “Where am I going to go today?”
After surviving India (where dish duty meant wiping with dirty cloth)…
I’m no longer a “germaphobe.”
I saw Matt Harding’s ”Dancing” video and all the crazy places he went to do his dance and I thought to myself – “I can do that!”
I have a lot of limitations—the backpacker life doesn’t have any limitations.
I usually dream up trip ideas when I’m in bed sleeping, then the next day I go to work trying to figure out the details and make plans.
Buying the ticket is usually the last thing I do.
Even though I try to make plans, I usually end up improvising at some point because I find out that I’m unprepared.
If I see a cool place in a picture it becomes part of my itinerary.
I ate a raw mussel that a New Zealander fished out of the water.
I was on a dive boat and Luke, the local rugby player, jumped overboard and dove down and then threw some mussels in the boat. Burnham from the dive shop got his knife out and started cutting out the mussel from the shell. Luke climbed into the boat and swallowed the mussel whole. Then he said it was my turn. I was thinking “What did I get myself into?” So there I was on the spot with Burnham handing me the mussel from the other shell. I looked at it, smelled it, pondered the raw piece of mussel staring at me. I tried to take a bite but couldn’t. Finally I was able to muster the courage to take a bite. It wasn’t so bad. Tasted like saltwater. Then Burnham fed me the tongue. There I was eating raw mussel on a Dive boat in Whitianga.
I dig meeting travelers of the opposite sex.
I usually meet girls and then say something like “Hey I’m going to the train market, want to join me?” and go from there.
I carry the Lonely Planet guides.
They tell me everything I need to know from the best hostels to internet cafe locations. It even told me where to go for urgent care in Phnom Pehn when I went flying out of my chair.
The first thing I do when I get to a new place is scope out the hostels.
I prefer staying in a hostel because it’s a cool place to mingle with other travelers.
I would love to go back to Cambodia.
I want to go back and find Kop, our tuk tuk driver who guided me and sort of took me under his wing.
For my next trip, I’m going to convert my Van to 4wd and drive to South America.
I’ve never been there and I’ve seen the most amazing pictures of places like the Atacama Desert and the Andes. It’s hard to get my powerchair in taxis and buses that aren’t accessible so it’d be much easier if I had my own van. Driving yourself isn’t a walk in the park from what I hear, but I want a challenge.
I’d never leave home without my BiPAP and my ramps.
The BiPAP helps me breathe at night and I need ramps to get my chair into taxis and hotels because wheelchair accessibility is non-existent in many of the places I want to go.
I’ve had my share of embarrassing moments on the road.
I gotten caught with my pants down in front of cute girls a few times. The showers are usually down the hall (or on other floors if you need the accessible shower) and it’s hard for me to get dressed in the cramped bathrooms so I just wheel back to my room to get dressed. That involves going down the halls wearing nothing but a towel covering my lap. One time as some girl was passing, my friend said to her, “Hey, have you met Drew?” She stopped and said, “No, hi Drew, I’m so and so nice to meet you…” It took all our might to hold the laughter in.
I use a wheelie bag.
I put a trailer hitch on the back of my chair that I attach it to. I dragged that bag around through raw sewage and over rocks. When I got home it was so beat up that I had to burn it in a bonfire.
If you gave me plane tickets to anywhere, I’d head to Australia.
I’ve always wanted to go explore the outback and remote sandy beaches and islands and it’s too far for me to drive my van.
When I traveled by train in India I had to dismantle my chair and turn it on its side to get it on board.
I’ll admit, I was unimpressed with the town of Agra – home of the Taj Mahal.
It smelled terrible from all the horse manure on the streets. I wanted to stay at a hotel nearby but I’m glad I didn’t. After a long day at the Taj, which was absolutely amazing by the way, I wanted to get as far away as I could from that place.
The cheapest place I stayed was $11 per night in Siem Reap.
I could have gotten a room for $6, but I opted for hot water and air conditioning.
The best hotel I stayed in was the Le Meridien Mina Seyahi in Dubai.
A friend of the family worked there and hooked us up with two rooms for 5 days. After coming out of India, it was such a welcome sight. It was right on the beach and the breakfast buffet was to die for!
Right now my favorite travel-oriented site (besides BootsNAll) is the Expedition Portal message board.
It’s for overland vehicle travel around the world something I plan on doing soon.
I quit my job to backpack around the world because I wanted more from life than just going to work every day.
I wanted to see as much of the world as I could while I still had the strength and energy to do so—because Muscular Dystrophy progressively worsens as I get older.
I love to travel because it gives me the freedom to go where I want and leave behind the responsibilities.
You get to see beautiful places, meet lots of different people, do new and exciting things, all on your own schedule. Sometimes people think I’m lost but I always know where I’m going.
Keep updated on the progress of Beyond the Chair, the movie documenting Andrew’s adventure, by checking out the official website, becoming a fan on Facebook or Myspace and following the Beyond the Chair Twitter feed.
“How I Travel” is a BootsnAll series publishing every Tuesday in an effort to look at the unique and diverse travel habits of some of the world’s most well known and proficient road warriors. Got ideas for who we should talk to? Drop us a note.
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all photographs provided by Andrew Shelley and may not be used without permission