Andrea Molina and Jake Dacks
Right now, San Salvador, El Salvador. If you ask us in a week, we hope the answer will be somewhere in Nicaragua.
Who do you think you are anyway?
The most defining thing about both of us right now is that we’re in the midst of a long journey from Mexico to Argentina on our bikes. The pandemic has forced us to make some major adjustments to the itinerary, but we’re happy to be in El Salvador right now, where I grew up. I left El Salvador as a teenager, finishing high school in Costa Rica, and then moving to the U.S. to study and eventually work as a Spanish-language immersion teacher at a school in D.C. There’s a big Central American community there, and I was involved in lots of community projects to improve things for immigrants and other marginalized people of color in the city. I was part of an immigrant-led music group that plays Son Jarocho, music from Veracruz, Mexico that has its roots in indigenous and African traditions. As a kindergarten teacher, I also helped lead a campaign with other women of color to organize a union at our charter school. We were the first charter school in the history of the city to have a union contract!
Otherwise, I really like cats.
I’m basically a middle-aged guy trying to hold onto the ideals I developed when I was a punk kid. Before starting this trip, I worked with young people in D.C., helping them grow organic fruits and veggies, and learning lots about my adopted city from them. I spent a lot of my spare time in the woods, collecting wild edible things like mushrooms and pawpaws. Like Andrea, I also worked on social justice projects and campaigns quite a bit. That has ranged from helping occupy people’s houses during the eviction crisis after the 2008 recession to trying to stop the construction of an animal testing lab. All of those experiences have really shaped who I am today, and have definitely made our bike trip a much richer experience.
How’d you get into bikes?
I grew up in a couple different working class areas around the capital of El Salvador. Beyond the panaderos (the men who sell bread from giant baskets mounted to the front of their bikes), there wasn’t much of a bike culture where I lived. Plus, we were poor, so riding a bike was never really on my radar as a kid. As a result, I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was an adult. Living in D.C., I had a lot of friends who got from place to place on bikes. I envied that independence, so I began the somewhat perilous transition to becoming a bike commuter myself. I got various bikes from friends over the years, which I now realize ranged from a little too big to much too big. My first long trip was a fundraiser for CISPES, an U.S.-based organization that supports social movements in El Salvador. Starting in D.C., we rode for three days through the hills of Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. It was an amazing experience to be riding with like-minded people, many of whom were also immigrants and new to long bike rides. I learned a lot, and by the last day, I wasn’t even wearing underwear under my riding shorts!
The summer after my freshman year of college, I hung out a bit with some guys I'd met through the punk scene in Miami. They were involved in Food Not Bombs, which is a free meal distribution program organized mostly through punk and anarchist communities all over the world. One of them lent me a bike so we could check out the dumpsters at a handful of grocery stores in our suburban neighborhood. I was instantly hooked on all of it. I loved the freedom, instant mobility, and even anonymity the bike gave me, and I continue to appreciate all of that. Biking quickly became my main mode of transportation and, after a couple years, I started to dabble in the lycra side of things. I wasn’t really fast enough or competitive enough to keep up with my roadie friends, but I still loved the places I could get to on a bike. Eventually some friends in D.C. introduced me to dirt road touring, and that was definitely my speed. As I mentioned, I’m really into plants and mushrooms, so getting out into the wilder green spaces on a bike was the perfect way for me to find new foraging spots. Over the last five years or so, I did a few short tours on the coasts, and was always left wanting more. And that kind of brings us to the trip we’re on now.
Tell us about your Surly Bikes
Well. We started this trip on stock 26” Disc Truckers. We had drop bars, bar-end shifters, front and rear panniers, and 1.75” tires. After a few weeks, we realized we were having lots more fun on the rocky, rutted dirt roads in Mexico that took us off the beaten path. And we later realized that those roads were lots more fun with less weight and a different riding position. So we eventually switched out our bars, brakes, shifters and tires for a more old school mountain bike set-up, which we’ve been having a blast on. The panniers were still getting on the way in some of the deep channelized single-track we found ourselves on in Guatemala, so we’re intent on leaving San Salvador with more of a bikepacking set-up. At this point we’re aiming to be on dirt the majority of the time, and want to be able to jump on some really rough stuff occasionally.
In addition to the bag swap-out, we’re also going to be continuing our journeys on (matching Grandma’s Lipstick) Bridge Clubs! We couldn’t be more excited to have bikes that seem to be designed for exactly the type of touring that we’re doing. We’ve only ridden them around the city so far, but we both love the added stability and comfort of the 2.4” tires and the hydraulic brakes. We’re sure we’ll be making them more our own in the coming months, but for now, we love them just the way they are. Being in the middle of a trip, we wanted bikes we didn’t have to mess with a lot, and we think (so far) the Bridge Clubs come stock with just about everything we want. The only change we’ve made is to swap the handlebars out for the Soma Ospreys we’d been using on the Truckers, which offer a bunch of hand positions.
Favorite bike-related memories:
I’m pretty short so it’s always been a struggle to find a bike that feels comfortable. And since I’m still somewhat new to biking in general, it can take me a bit to settle in to a bike. The Trucker was the first new bike I ever bought, and the first one I could comfortably stand over. I thought it was perfect right out of the shop. However, once we started riding on more challenging terrain, especially fully-loaded, I felt ready for an adjustment. In Oaxaca, Mexico, we put the fattest tires we could fit on the bikes and switched out the handlebars. Two days later we were on the road again, riding steep mountain trails out to the coast. During our first big climb on a chunky dirt road, I felt fear creep up in me, anxiously expecting the back tire to slide on the loose rocks and knock me off-balance. When I got to the top of the climb, looking over the never-ending Sierra Sur mountains, with my new knobby tires and wide handlebars guiding the way, I felt a huge wave of relief and gratitude. I loved riding these dirt roads through remote communities, and now it felt like my bike did too.
This trip is full of them, so maybe I’ll go with the first one. When we flew to Mexico to start the ride, we boxed our bikes up to get them on the plane. The boxing and packing process itself was so full of excitement since it was such a tangible way to feel like we really were about to do this thing we had spent over a year planning. When we landed at the airport in one of the biggest cities in the world, Mexico City, we brought our bikes out to the curb and started putting them together. That moment, of being at the beginning of a multi-year journey and using our own hands and tools to assemble the vehicles was, for me, probably as exhilarating as any breathtaking mountain top view.
If you could ride anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I grew up in post-Civil War El Salvador, and my family was firmly aligned with the resistance movement. We often found camaraderie and inspiration from other struggles in Latin America, and the story of the Cuban revolution was always part of that story. It usually found its way into my home through salsa and nueva trova music on the radio, so Cuba has always been a place of wonder for me. Because of the U.S. blockade, Cubans have been forced to grow much of their own food (and to do it organically), and I would love to tour the extensive urban gardens of Havana. Lots of Cubans also depend on bikes, not just for commuting, but as work vehicles as well. I’d love to see all of these things firsthand, now that sixty years have passed since the revolution and time and shifting politics have shaped new fights on the island.
We are doing it! There is so much incredible riding that awaits us. Right now (and this changes weekly), I think I’m most excited to ride the Peru Great Divide. It’s one of the routes that inspired me to undertake this trip. It seems so full of amazing views, but the remoteness is really calling to me these days. Central America is kind of densely populated, which is offering a certain type of special experience, but I will be ready for long stretches of deserted roads again soon. I’ve also heard that, since it largely uses roads that were created for big mining trucks, the climbs aren’t too steep. It sounds like perfect dirt road touring.
Where can people follow along with you?
We have an Instagram account for the trip- @purobiking. Andrea is also really active on her personal account, @molinaire55. She also shares updates from time to time through Swift Industries newsletter and Instagram (@swiftindustries).
As a thank you for sharing their story with us, we set up Andrea and Jake with a couple of Surly Bridge Club bikes to help them venture further off the beaten path. We also sent them a few other goodies to bring on their ramble. And as with all of our Humanoid of Surly blog features, we ask the Humanoids to select an organization that they would like to support, and then we make a donation to the organization on their behalf. Andrea and Jake selected an organization near and dear to their hearts, one that they have supported in the past: Internation Mayan League. Here is a bit about the work that they are doing:
International Mayan League
"Our work and priorities are guided by the vision and practices of our spiritual and traditional leaders, elders, and authorities in order to address the root causes contributing to discrimination, inequality, and oppression of the Maya and the destruction of our communities and environment. We work closely with our Nation and support the process of our unity for the good of our peoples and our earth." During COVID, International Maya League has been very busy. "Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Mayan League has worked to respond to the diverse needs of the Maya Indigenous community in the D.C. Metropolitan area, one of the most vulnerable groups that have been left out of state and federal COVID-19 response."
If you would like to learn more about what International Mayan League is all about, or if you would like to donate to their efforts, check them out here.
Andrea and Jake would also like to recognize a few of their friends that have contributed to what can be seen above:
Those neat frame bags that can be seen on the Disc Truckers in some of the pictures above were handmade by Andrea and Jake's friend @Peregrinus_equiptment in Mexico. Please check them out!