The Free Tea Party

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Edna Lu the Traveling Tea Party Bus

This past March on an unseasonably cold night in Austin we stumbled upon a warmly lit, converted school bus on a corner of South Congress Avenue. Being curious we ambled up to the bus where we met Guisepi and his trusty stead, Edna Lu (aka the Traveling Tea Party Bus). We were greeted with a hot cup of tea, some cookies and a fascinating story about.

Guisepi and Edna Lu, The Free Tea Party, have been traveling the country since 2008 serving up tea and good conversation all over the U.S., and have agreed to share their story with us. Read on for an inspiring journey and a feel-good story. Don’t forget to pour yourself a cup of tea:

Tell us about the Free Tea Party and yourself!

Simply put, the Free tea Party is a mobile free tea house that facilitates community building through human interactions that are made more genuine by eliminating a profit maximization motive. I pull the tea bus up to random city streets, events, farmers’ markets, surf spots, parks – anywhere there’s people – and open the doors for strangers to interact.

I’ve discovered that human economy, or the sharing of resources, has only recently in human history become all about one-for-one interactions (i.e. using money or bartering). For most of our history we practiced what I call reciprocal altruism, or non-calculated exchange. In these kinds of “economies” relationships are how resources are shared. Say, I want to build a barn. All of my neighbors come together to help me do in three weeks what would take me alone a year. Then, when my neighbor needs a barn built, we all help him out. There’s no interest on that “debt,” nor am I obligated under law to help him out. In fact, if I’m sick or have a sprained wrist, my neighbor would rather see me rest, as we have a relationship where we want to see each other succeed. If I am able to reciprocate, we have built a relationship of helping each other whenever we’re in need. This relationship is constantly kept in check without anyone taking advantage of another, simply because when one person does take more than they receive, or doesn’t reciprocate, the relationship dwindles. In this kind of economy, it makes more sense to keep helping each other.

These kinds of relationships are still practiced amongst people in their immediate family and friend circles, but since we have so much contact with people with whom we don’t really care about their success, we tend lean towards one-for-one interactions most of the time.

The free tea bus is helping to bring these kinds of genuine human relationships back to our daily lives.

As for myself, I am a fanatic about tinkering, building, fixing, travel, community, low environmental impact living, and high social impact living.

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What inspired you to start on this journey?

Much of the inspiration for this journey was actually loneliness. I was living in my pickup truck in Los Angeles in the winter of ’05-’06 and working more than full time for next to no money as an apprenticing video editor. I worked all day, but when work was over, I didn’t have community, and I didn’t have many friends. In order to remedy this, I began to drive the few blocks down to Hollywood Blvd. after work to cook my dinner on my tailgate (which was my kitchen at that point). People would walk by and ask what I was doing.

Inevitably, I would invite all these random folks to sit with me to eat, or just chat. Once food was done, I would put the kettle on for hours to keep the interactions going. And the amazing thing was that all kinds of people would sit with me: gutter punk street kids, college professors, students, shopkeepers, thugged-out dudes from south central LA, and others. All of these people interacted with me and each other. It was as if some imaginary wall of separation that normally keeps us from talking to strangers had disappeared. After serving tea for a few months, I realized the main reason for this was that there was no money involved.

Pretty soon people were asking me when I was going to be serving tea again, and eventually calling me the ‘tea guy’ or ‘tea man.”

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Who is Edna Lu and how did she get her name?

In 2008, I purchased and began building out Edna Lu, the free tea bus. Over the past 7 years, she has become beautifully wood-worked using 99% salvaged wood and 75% salvaged hardware. Her engine runs on waste vegetable oil and biodiesel, and her electricity comes from the sun. She has a wood stove, running and filtered water, a fold-down desk, and a bed that lowers from the ceiling via pulleys. Even the hot water for the sink (and shower) is heated by waste engine heat (via coolant).

A woman on Craig’s List sold Edna to me, and as I was pulling out of her driveway, I asked her if the bus had a name. She said that her partner had been calling it Eddy because it was a Special Ed. bus.I shook my head, because I knew that my new travel companion was a female – hence Edna, or Special Edna.

The Lu part comes from two Chinese writers of 8th and 9th century China who wrote about tea. Lu Yu wrote the first book on tea (the Cha Ching), whereas poet Lu Tong wrote much of his poetry about tea.

You must have so many stories from your travels. What’s one of your favorites?

Hmm, so many to choose from!

One of my favorite stories is from two summers ago when my companion Ally and I setup the tea bus, and her café-van at 7,000 feet in the Sierra Mountains along the Pacific Crest Trail. We strung up my parachute for shade, set out rugs and cushions, prepared hot and iced tea, and Ally made a bunch of baked goods – all for people hiking the PCT from Mexico to Canada.

Our special little café was visited by dozens of through hikers, mountain bikers, and others for the five days we were there. In long distance hiking culture there is a name for acts of unconditional kindness to hikers. It’s called trail magic, and it happen quite often (though not usually as elaborate as our setup). Much of the discussion that week was about why trail magic is acceptable on the trail, but we don’t give to strangers in the “real world.”

Whereas many people start the trail thinking it’s a connection to self or to nature, I think many people who experience the generosity of trail angels on the trail go home with a fresh outlook on sharing and community. From this experience, I also realized the same is true for people who visit the tea bus. Because the tea bus offers “trail magic” to strangers who are hiking the long trail of life in the real world, it seems to inspire people towards a more sharing mindset.

Sometimes it takes the wild to help us realize the value of social relationships.

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What do you hope to accomplish with the Free Tea Party?

My main goal with the Free Tea Party is to help create a world that is more sharing and less selfish, while at the same time getting to live as much as I can within my personal moral framework.

What do you see for the future of the Free Tea Party and Edna Lu?

The future holds years more of traveling the country, serving free tea, and being of service. One of the great projects that I am working on right now is the completion of the Tea Bus Factory Service Manual – which outlines all the systems of the tea bus both in words, diagrams, and photos.

As for Edna Lu, I imagine we’ll be on the road for a while to come – but eventually, when her motor will run no more, she will settle somewhere to become a permanent free tea house.

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What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen along your travels?

I think the craziest thing I have seen along my travels is happening everyday in our country – and that is the idolization of money, and the idea that money is what you have to have to fulfill all of your needs and desires. What I see happening is that people put the value of money over their morals, their community, their natural environment, and even their relationships. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that money has great potential as a way for people to interact with strangers and for long-distance exchange, but I feel like people would be more happy, the environment wouldn’t suffer as much, and communities would be stronger if we valued relationships – both with people, the items we consume, and the land – as much, if not more than money.

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What’s your favorite tea?

Whatever’s in my cup. 🙂

Tea is one plant: Camillia Sinensis – from which you can get black, white, green, or oolong, depending on how it’s processed. Yet, in the broad sense of the word, Tea can be used to describe any herb or spice infused in hot water.

In the strict sense of the word, I’ve been really digging nice buttery oolongs recently, but always come back to sweet and creamy blacks for a morning kick, or honeyed greens in the afternoon. In the loose sense of the word, I love choosing an herbal tea that fits my mood or body. For instance, if I’ve eaten a big meal I may drink something with ginger, peppermint or anise to aid in digestion. If I’m looking to be mellow, I may drink something calmative like lavender, catnip, or lemon balm. The possibilities are endless.

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How can people help the Free Tea Party continue?

The best way to help the Free Tea Party continue is to host one yourself! Invite friends, neighbor, or even strangers over for tea. Use free tea parties as a way to cultivate community, spark friendships, and see how non-monetary interactions can deepen bonds between people.

If people would like to support myself and Edna, they can log on to freeteaparty.org/support.html and check out the many non-monetary ways to lend a hand, as well click the Donate button if they would like.

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