Nipun: Today we have a very special guest, someone whose story can ignite anyone's heart. Giusepi is someone who embodies our theme of community. Our theme for today is "serving up community one teacup at a time."
Rish: Giusepi has served up close to 30,000 cups of free tea over the last 10 years, so I'm guessing he's had about that many conversations with people from diverse walks of life. He serves up his tea from his mobile tea bus and home. It's an experiment that he calls the "Free Tea Party." Each part of this story is a story unto itself. You take his tea bus, which he has lovingly named, Edna Lu, a modified school bus built using salvaged materials end to end that runs on cooking oil and solar power--there's no waste in his tea bus. His idea for serving free tea itself is a bold experiment in building community. In addition to serving tea, Giusepi leads workshops, sharing sessions, speaking engagements, and shares very freely all the knowledge he has around building and working symbiotically with organizations, people, and events to further genuine human interaction. Welcome, Giusepi, and thank you for being on the call today.
Giusepi: Hello, it's so good to here. Thank you both for kind introductions.
Rish: We are so pleased to have you here Giusepi. What inspired you to start this idea of gifting tea in the first place?
Giusepi: It really all stems from loneliness, personally. Loneliness is something that we've all experienced at some point in our lives. I happened to be living in a pickup truck in Los Angeles, working more than full time as a video editor for pretty much no money, as is the case oftentimes in those kinds of jobs when you're first starting out.
I was working 50-60, sometimes 70 hours a week and I wasn't having genuine human interactions, I didn't have community. I was sitting in front of a computer screen basically. About 3 months into the project we finished the rough cut of the documentary. All of a sudden, my hours dropped to 30-40 hours a week and I had all this free time. But what do you do with free time when you don't know people and you don't know where to go. Me being 21-22 at the time, I tried going to the bar, but my interactions with strangers, with girls asking me, "Hey, you want to buy me a drink?" which didn't seem like genuine human interaction to me.
So I ended up after work starting to go down to Hollywood Blvd. with my pickup truck and opening my tailgate, pulling out my camp stove and cooking dinner. Hollywood Blvd. is full of the most eclectic group of people. It's literally everyone from gutter punk street kids to movie stars. People inevitably asked me what I was doing and I would tell them I was cooking dinner and invite them to eat with me. After dinner I would just put on the kettle to keep those interactions going. Boiling water and making tea was a cheap and easy way to continue those interactions. What I found was when I took money and profit maximization out of my interactions with strangers, it made those interactions much more genuine. I loved it because I would have a gangster dude with street names tattooed on his face sitting with a college professor drinking tea. Japanese tourists sitting with a Nazi punk street kid. Those interactions were not people exploring their differences in a way that was antagonistic, but rather sharing in more fundamental things of what it means to be human. I think that's what taking the commercial aspect out of sharing does.
Rish: That's beautiful. Thank you. You said this started because it stems from loneliness. Elsewhere you've written that a cup of tea is the best cure for loneliness.
Giusepi: The greatest medicinal value of a cup of tea is that it cures loneliness.
Rish: I think we've all felt that to a certain extent, just from our personal experiences. I want to come back to this idea of when you take money away from something it really creates genuine interactions. I know that's something that is very present for you and I'd love to explore that in some more detail.
Before we go deep into that, let me just take a step back. You started doing this in Hollywood Blvd. You then started traveling and one of your friends said you have to do this more. And at some point you realized you were going to make tea as the main function of your existence. After 10 years, what has that experience been like? What has been great and what are the challenges?
Giusepi: Finding that purpose, that place where I know my energy can go to whether I'm--saying that making tea is the function of my existence, it's not that I make tea all day everyday for people. It's that everything I do, I take into account how is this furthering this purpose, how am I creating the means and methods to sustain myself, how am I building the relationships to keep this happening. Having that purpose has brought me to the point where I can be super aware of how I spend my time, how I build relationships, how I accomplish things.
In terms of challenges, what I've found, and there's a few things: one is that our society is set up around this idea that people are either trying to maximize profit or they're negligent. So trying to work around health code and laws and figuring out how can I serve tea for free without having to pay for a health permit? How do I navigate these social norms and mores which are defining what it means to live a proper life or to be successful?
I always think we're in this wagon train where we're each on our own wagon following the wagon ahead of us on this road. It's a road that's been traveled by everyone before us and we sometimes just follow because that's the easiest route. There's ruts in the road that keep your wheels on the road, and to journey off the road is the extreme challenge of just going against the grain. Sometimes I feel like living in the bus not making money, the most valuable thing in my life is serving free tea without a health permit and doing these things that are against laws and norms, it can cause a sticky and tricky situation externally, and I just mean outside myself. But by the same token, the reward that comes with it is being satisfied knowing that I am living in my own moral framework, despite what norms or laws are.
Rish: And that takes a lot of courage. Is there something about how you grew up or some influence you had along the way that made you want to go against the grain and live your moral framework?
Giusepi: The number one, most important thing to talk about is that I'm a white middle-class male from the United States of America. That in and of itself offers me the freedom to undertake a lot of these things. I can't imagine what it would be like to do this as a person of color, or even as a single woman. With privilege, the most important thing to think about is how do you empower people without privilege to be able to undertake the same things.
There are some areas I can talk about that relate to the tea bus, but in other ways, my childhood was very much filled with travel. I grew up going to these music camp outs, not necessarily where you go to see live music, but where you go to play live music. I was around a lot of musicians who traveled and the tailgates and the Coleman stoves. Those were the hearts of community and that's part of the reason why I accidentally stumbled upon the power of serving tea from my tailgate, because those things meant community to me.
I also went to a traveling middle and high school that had an emphasis on experiential learning, traveling both in the country as well as abroad--going to India and Nepal, what is the first thing someone does? They offer you a free cup of tea, whether it's a business interaction or a neighbor. All of those things combined really impacted me.
And I spent several years on and off riding freight trains and hitchhiking, putting myself in uncomfortable situations, giving up security for freedom. All of those things are major influences.
Rish: I'm glad you brought up privilege, which is very relevant to the current time. Also something I would like to talk more about is this trade off between security and freedom. There's that concept and you have other core principles that you're rooted in. My question around that set of principles is how you came about valuing them, what about these makes them dear to you?
There's something about the gift economy that's very appealing to you and you've thought deeply about it, about value versus money versus transactions. There's something about the slow movement that you've spoken about, taking your time to build community, slowing down, pausing. There's something about do-it-yourself or do-it-together, how you built your bus and traded projects and learned things along the way. And also around sustainability. This constellation of four or five things that dominate and guide your thinking, it's a broad question, but what about that particular constellation of principles is dear to you?
Giusepi: I often think of your moral framework or your values coming to you through exploring, experiencing, and experimenting. Those are three things that, when we put ourselves in the position to have experiences, to explore different concepts, to experiment with right and wrong and the things we value, we put ourselves in the position to step outside something that we've been raised in or something that society tells us is right or wrong.
Using one example, which is the gift economy, I had no idea what the gift economy was when I started serving tea. I didn't know that you gave gifts other than at Christmas or birthdays. It was the hands-on, first-hand experience of gifting and sharing, taking money and profit maximization out of the interaction that started to form an idea in my mind that sharing was something that was valuable.
Over the years of doing it and learning and reading books, I just finished this great book called Debt: The First 5,000 Years. The second chapter of that book is called, "The Myth of Barter," which really goes against the idea that barter is what happened before money. In fact, before money people shared because you lived in small groups and everyone was your friends and family and neighbor.
I think that putting yourself out there to have experiences to trigger you to have more deep conversations with people, to read books, to look deeper. All of those things put you in the position to seek out your moral framework for yourself. I'm a firm believer that modern society makes it much easier to shift your moral framework to fit your lifestyle, rather than to shift your lifestyle to fit your moral framework. That's one of the most important elements in my life, personally, is to have those experiences, those learning moments, building that moral framework. Of course, always being open to having your perspective shifted and changed with new experiences, but then aligning your life with your values.
Rish: That's beautiful. You talked about this book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years and your views on money and one of the ways in which you encapsulate this particular piece of moral framework is that relationships are the highest form of currency. Connecting that to what you said about experimenting to come up with these truths for yourself, could you elaborate and share some of the personal experiences you've had that brought you to this conclusion of relationships being the highest form of currency and what you mean by that?
Giusepi: When I was building the tea bus, I knew that I wanted to build with salvaged materials, I wanted to woodwork it and build all these systems in it. I didn't necessarily have all the skills. I have a mechanical, technical mind. I like the way things work. I like math and all of those things, but I didn't have the shop or the tools or the materials. I ended up meeting a friend of a friend who was building his shop out, who was a salvage/wood master. He gathers wood from all over Northern California and he builds and remodels all kinds of things.
I could have come into the situation in two different ways. That's one of the things that sometimes gets overlooked when I say relationships are the highest form of currency, when relationships are both with people as well as the things we use and consume, with objects.
In this story, I had an informal agreement with this guy, Joe. Any time he needed help, I would drop what I was doing and I would give him a hand. Sometimes I would spend days painting and installing windows and setting up tools. In return, I could use his shop and almost any material in the shop. Because we were building a relationship with each other, it wasn't based around profit maximization or one-for-one interactions like barter, it was non-calculated, which I feel is traditional human economy. That gave me the opportunity to learn skills form him, and he was eager to share because he was also intrigued by the free tea bus and the concept behind it.
So I could have gone out and paid for an expensive membership at a woodworking studio and paid for classes and basically 83% of people are disengaged or actively disengaged at work, so I could have been one of those people who didn't like their job, working for money doing something I didn't want to do to pay for classes. Or I could just build that relationship, cut out the middle man of money, and in doing so, empower Joe to have a functional shop by helping him and to get projects done. And also to empower myself with skills, materials, and resources necessary to accomplish a project. I think there's something to be said for both relationships with people and with the things we use and consume.
Rish: That's very interesting that you include relationships with things as well. I also got a sense of you reflecting back something that you talked about, which is that you are really trying to push the boundaries of words like work and free and interdependence and sharing. I see that as a thread throughout how you interact with people and with things.
When you live in this way--you have mentioned freedom, security, and trying to get more freedom while giving up more security--I'd like to hear about an experience that you talked about when you were in the middle of nowhere basically in North Carolina and the transmission of your bus failed. I think about my car and I think that would be such a major inconvenience and I'd start thinking about the cost. And for you, this sort of inconvenience poses unique challenges because you don't do traditional monetary exchange, you don't have the traditional safety net and you've chosen not to. Undoubtedly, you've been in other situations like this. So when you're in a situation like that, what comes up for you from an internal perspective, where your faith is tested?
Giusepi: Well, I do participate in monetary exchange. For clarity's sake, a lot of people place a no-money element on my existence. I make about $6-7,000 a year to cover most of my needs. To put that into perspective, to repair my transmission cost about $3,000. Yeah, I was in the middle of nowhere--it's so funny because when your whole home is on wheels and you break down, as long as there is a shoulder, it's not that big of an inconvenience in the sense that you're already home.
But here I am in a state where I don't know a lot of people and it was a little nerve-wracking. Fortunately, I have AAA, but AAA couldn't get to me. They didn't have any tow trucks available and it was a whole ordeal and I had to get another tow truck. Fortunately, 15 miles away from my stepsister's house where I had been staying for a few days before that, but a place where I had never really spent time. She has a driveway and I could get towed there, so that's a safety net in the sense of community, right? A relation that has a resource that I am in desperate need of.
Rish: And you probably have those all across the United States by virtue of what you've done.
Giusepi: Well, it's really interesting because for the first 8 years of serving tea, I was in the West. So if my transmission went out while I was on the West Coast, I would make a few phone calls, find the right person, the right shop, get towed there, have the tools and a mentor--have the resources to help me fix it. That was my ideal.
I was hoping to find a shop, somewhere in Asheville, NC to let me use some of these specialty tools that are needed. I do about 95% of my own mechanical work, but something like a transmission is just a little bit beyond my scope. This is where it's really interesting in terms of money because I was stressed out trying to find the right person. I wasn't finding what I needed in a transmission rebuilder and I reached out to my community and basically I wasn't going to be able to find someone to let me use their shop.
The same reason that I am not a fan of money--well, one of the main reasons--is also the reason why money is so great, which is that it retains value over space and time. In a lot of circumstances that allows us to devalue things because we don't see the actual cost that goes into it, we only see the monetary or economic cost. We don't see the environmental destruction or the labor that's going into it, etc. But at this point in time, I was very thankful for the money system, in that I put up something on social media that basically said the tea bus is in need and in 36 hours, I raised $3,500 and it covered all of my expenses: towing, a heavy-duty transmission--I had to tell people to stop sending money because it was too much.
And that also comes from a place where I literally do not accept monetary tips and donations for serving tea. I have never set out to ask people for money for anything. So it was really nice to be able to feel that community support after 10 years of doing this. The one time I was in real desperate need of some help, people stepped up and it was so beautiful and it took a week of stressing out in my stepsister's driveway for a really amazing tear-filled moment of feeling completely supported.
R: That's beautiful. I appreciate your disclaimer, saying when the occasion demands, I interact with money. I think anyone who listens to this story can't fail to notice that even though the donations came in, so much of it was facilitated by the community that you had been fostering for all these years.
G: What's interesting is that, looking at traditional economy, people lived in these small groups of up to 100 or 150 people. Dunbar's Number is widely accepted among anthropologists as well as psychologists. We can have maybe up to 150 intimate relationships with people. When you live in a small group like that, this idea of sharing--and think in terms of not having money or a numerical value to place on things.
Complex math is not that old. The number 0 was invented in the 1500s. When you have less calculated societies, there's no interest. You can't say this many apples equals this many pears. When you share with someone in your community, what you're doing is you're inviting them into a relationship. You're creating a bond.
I've got a great flowchart here. It's about reciprocal altruism--which I would say is another word for traditional human economy--which is, I receive a favor from you. I notice the favor. I feel happiness. Now there's two ways the flowchart can go. In one way, it says I don't feel obligated to do you a favor, or I don't want to do you a favor. Therefore there's no reciprocation, and then you notice cheating or lack of full reciprocation and then you don't like me. And then you're unlikely to do me favors in the future.
Versus the other side, which is that I feel obligated to do you a favor, and I like you and want to do you a favor. And then there's reciprocation and you like me. And there's positive reinforcement and you're likely to do me favors in the future.
This is kind of the element of traditional human economy that I'm trying to revive, which is this idea that when you share with people in a non-calculated or less calculated way, you're inviting them into a relationship and you're inviting them to collaborate with you. It's just like when you share presents at Christmas, if you celebrate Christmas. You don't sit there and say, well, their present was only worth $20 and mine to them was worth $60. That's not necessarily what Christmas is about. It's about sharing.
I think that's one of the reasons why people really like the tea bus, because it sparks something within them that recognizes that we don't actually need to see profit maximization as the function of human interaction. And that's precisely why my community stepped up when there was that monetary need, because I've invited those people to participate in community with me through sharing.
R: There are so many beautiful things in there, Giusepi. Earlier you said that you actually do not accept any money or remuneration for your tea, but then when people insist to pay you, I remember reading that you asked them to put whatever they want in a Gift and Take Box. Can you tell us about the inspiration for this Gift and Take Box and the 5 drawers in it. What have been some of the experiences around that?
G: In very brief terms, I think that humans have this natural tendency to reciprocate. I think that's built into us evolutionarily. I think that it strengthens community and creates bonds. I think it's very natural for humans to want to reciprocate.
I think, culturally, what we've done is perverted it into this highly calculated thing. So many people come and they get free tea and they're like, here's $1, here's $10, I've had people try to give me $100.
It's not because I don't believe in reciprocation, because I do. But because I really want to encourage people to have interactions that are non-monetary, I have created a policy for myself that I don't accept monetary tips and donations. But, regardless, as we know humans ape each other, we like to copy each other. And when someone's generous and kind to you, it puts you in a generous and kind mood.
Maybe 7 or 8 years ago, I started keeping a jar around that was the Gift and Take Jar. It was just for money and anyone could put in and anyone could take out. You can kind of think of it as a community bank. It trips people out because they're like, I can get free tea and free money? And a lot of people are like, I can't take your money. And I say, well, it's not my money. Someone else put it in there for you.
The Gift and Take has grown. I built this full set of drawers right on this big side door that opens when I'm serving tea. The first thing that you see is the Gift and Take. It's got a nice garden above it and there's five drawers.
Two of the drawers are Gift. There's a large gift drawer and a small gift drawer and if I pull it open some of the things that are...there's a love shaker, which is like a salt and pepper shaker, but it says love shaker and you can shake invisible sprinkles of love on anything you want. There's some Peace Pilgrim books. There's a bar of handmade soap that someone made. There's a handmade dish cleaning towel. There's a whole number of things in there.
The small gifts are very similar. There's some bubbles. There's some finger puppets. There's various things. Kids love it.
There's also a drawer for tinctures, salves, and teas. There's basically herbal medicine in this drawer for people.
There's the money drawer, which I've explained.
And probably my favorite drawer is the Share Card drawer. Share Cards provide a way for people to share with strangers. It's similar to money in that it retains value over space and time, but it's a little business card thing that allows you to offer a gift or take a gift from a complete stranger in a non-calculated way. It's not like you fill out a card to take a card.
I'll give you a couple examples. Here an artist named Eli put two limited edition prints of his art, and on the back there's a way to redeem. Ashley offers a gift of a bead- embroidered goddess doll that's handmade. John has offered a cookie. John's a lawyer, so I know somewhere in here he offered 15-minute free legal consultation. Writing services, web content, articles, you name it from Jeff. Here's all of these beautiful things. Someone to talk to. Irish dancing lessons.
R: That's amazing. What occurs to me is that it's actually turning the concept of money on it's head because money is the demand for things. You say, here I deserve this because I have a claim on it. And this is the other way around. You're saying you can make this claim upon me because I choose to freely give it. So it is like money, but it is almost like a 180 degree opposite.
G: It's a little more personal, too. Money is just this anonymous thing, whereas this is someone's life or skills or resources.
R: Just that list of things you talked about feels so personal and dear. People are sharing their art, their skills. The tinctures one, I'm curious about that. Have you ever burnt yourself on a heat exchanger and said, I'm going to pull something out of there?
G: There's all kinds of great stuff in there. I have a great collection of herbal medicine, too. I've been really absorbed into the herbalism community simply because I deal with herbs and community. It's a fun drawer partially because I end up doing herb conferences and meeting other herbalists, so there's a lot of exchange going on. But yeah, I've definitely pulled some stuff out of here for myself. I'm looking at what's in here now. I've got this serious relaxer tincture. I've got cramp relief for women. There's all kinds of stuff in here. For the burns, I do have aloe growing in my garden. That's where I go to if I get a burn.
R: You have a garden in your bus?
G: Yeah, so on top of the Gift and Take is a very small garden. It's in a window. It's also mounted on a door so it opens to go outside. Right now there's rosemary and lemon balm and basil, chives, and aloe vera growing in it right now.
R: Where are you? It occurs to me that I have no idea where you are because you're in a bus.
G: I am parked in Thomas, West Virginia on an old railroad grate. I think technically it's part of the national forest, but it's right on the main drag in downtown Thomas.
R: Thank you, that helps paint the picture. Okay, I know that last time I talked to you you were so passionate about this topic on human resilience, on community, on sharing as our true nature. I want to read a little excerpt from your blog and then see what thoughts come up for you on this. You say:
I can't help but think about the power that sharing has. It has given me purpose and happiness. It has made me realize that sharing is completely karmic. And the reason I can travel around sharing is because of all that sharing that has done with me. You give and you receive. This is how the world works.
And you had mentioned in our previous call this gratitude that you have for the elders of the community who have taken it upon themselves to teach you skills. You said these are not necessarily people who are older than me, but they are people who have just been in the same space of sharing as I have. Could you share your thoughts on that?
G: I think that this totally relates to this idea of relationships being the highest form of currency. Western minds often atomize and break everything down into compartments and see things as objects. And they oftentimes fail to see relationships as just an important part of what that object is.
So in that, I feel that my relationships with people and the world and objects and all those things is just as important as the object of myself. And just as important as the object of other people and things. So I think that the idea of sharing is simply fueling the relational aspects of what it means to exist. If when we fail to see ourselves in relation to the whole, we fail to see the nature of reality insofar as everything has relationships with other things around them.
For me personally, there are so many people who are my elders who are simply wiser or more skilled in some area than I am, and willing to share them. I think that those people have been willing to share those things with me because they know that I'm going to turn around and share those skills or the products of that labor with other people. If someone comes to you and wants to learn your skills so they can maximize profit and turn around and gain a bunch from it, you're less likely to share that with them. But if someone wants to use that skill or that resource to continue relationships and continue sharing knowledge, then you're much more likely to share those things.
R: You have so many fascinating ways in which you think about things. I want to ask you about some of the more difficult experiences you've had. You've talked about these beautiful interactions and experiences that you've had while sharing tea, but you've also described that there are, in fact, incoherent, threatening conversations or if you go down this other path of your chart, less than reciprocal relationships, whether with an individual or a group. First, I have a question about that and how you deal with that, but I was also struck by when you describe this dichotomy you've called it interesting, but then spectacular. I was taken by your use of that word, of calling these less than enlightening conversations spectacular. Could you elaborate on that?
G: I think that the spectacularness of uncomfortable situations is that those are some of the precise moments that we learn things. In one circumstance, which was a threatening fellow who came to the bus one evening--very verbally threatening and high or drunk or both. I feel like to ignore people who are in that head space and to just try to imagine everything is pretty and beautiful and having just these wonderful interactions with people all the time, again, is to ignore reality.
Those moments of navigating through hard interactions and figuring out how to deal with that is, for me it helps me feel comfortable, ironically. It helps me feel comfortable in my everyday existence. It helps me build the skills and retain the skills of having hard interactions with people, because not everyone is happy or in a good head space. On a side note, I have never ever had to kick anyone out of the bus. But what I will do is--I don't really know how to describe it--make people not interested in wanting to be there.
R: You describe it as making it think it's their idea to leave that area.
G: I don't know if that's trickery or what, but if it involves the safety of other people I take that very seriously. I guess it's spectacular in that it keeps me alive, it keeps me learning, it keeps me on my toes and it's exhilarating. Even if it is semi-depressing sometimes to see the state that some people are in.
R: Let me ask you a final question. All of us who have joined this call, we're trying to be better versions of ourselves, we're trying to create and build resilient communities. You've obviously done that with so much panache and success. What thoughts do you have on how each of us can build resilient communities where we live, whether it's general principles or a specific idea, what kind of take away can we take?
G: Honestly, I think the biggest take away message is building relationships and valuing relationships, and, again, that's with people, with the things we use and consume. If it's the things we use and consume, but it empowers us to have a little more control in our lives and freedom. If it's with other people, the power that multiple people together can have in creating community and accomplishing things is spectacular. I hope that's the take away message from the tea bus, that I am a lone man building a bus and serving tea for 10 years, but it has been an amazing adventure in community and exploring and building relationships and real skills.
R: Thank you, Giusepi. Let me hand it over to Nipun, who will be taking Q&As.
Nipun: Thank you, Rish, for that wonderful conversation. Giusepi, just very basic questions, you pull up in an area, you have your free tea sign, and what if no one shows up or what if too many people show up? Take us through the process of what happens when you actually land in a place, you open your doors and there's that discrete sign that says free tea.
G: One of the beautiful things about serving tea and doing it not for profit maximization is that it really doesn't matter how many people come. It's an offering an it's something that's there and if people don't stop, or if only one or two people stops, it's just as powerful. Partly because of the one or two interactions that do happen, partly because it just plants a seed in people's minds.
But in general, oftentimes what happens is that I tend to serve tea in public places. I really love reclaiming public places. A lot of times that's on public city streets and sidewalks or at a park. It could be in a national forest or at a surf spot, beach. But I'm also invited to festivals and events and various places like that. But oftentimes, no one will come right away. It's this eerie thing. We're taught, don't take candy from strangers in a van. There's no such thing as a free lunch. It takes a little bit for people to overcome those fears. And it depends what the crowd is.
N: Do you do something to make it easy? Having done this for 10 years, are there some things you do to help people overcome that, because that in itself is in service to the world, to help people overcome their fear of strangers.
G: I think one of the main things--there's a huge handicap door that opens on the side of the bus, as well as the regular school bus flapper doors. This is a short bus, by the way--very small, fits in a parking space. When people peak inside the bus, the bus is full of character and flavor. It's all wood-worked and there's a wood stove right across from the door and a sink and a brass faucet and all kinds of well-thought-out, crafted things. I think that having that warm, inviting atmosphere--I can't tell you how many people come in and they say, wow, this is really homey. I think a lot of people, when they hear about the tea bus, they expect some ramshackle smelling-like-dogs, hippy mobile, that's not well organized. I think the space itself is inviting.
Sometimes I put rugs out on the sidewalk with little chairs and a little tea table, just really subtle but very inviting things. Often times I'm serving tea in the evening and at night, so especially when it's dark out and the lights are on in the bus and there's steam from the kettle and there's people laughing. But oftentimes it will take half an hour or 45 minutes before the first person stops. But almost always as soon as one person stops, another and another and another.
N: So the tea is served inside the bus and not outside?
G: People can come inside, they can hang out outside. Sometimes when I do a big festival I just have only outside. Inside there's seating for 6-7 people comfortably, plus people can stand in a couple places. I've had up to 23 people in here so far.
N: That's like an Indian rickshaw.
G: And I drew a lot of inspiration from these little chai shops in India where it's a tiny little nook in the corner and you have it piled full of people drinking tea.
N: And one of the things is that they are incredibly generous. My wife and I went on a walking pilgrimage many years ago and one of the places where you see the most amount of generosity, even if they are selling for a living. If they see you are a pilgrim or they see you can't afford it, they are often more than happy to give you a cup of tea. Do you get tired of chatting with people? I mean, you're constantly on. I can imagine an introvert saying, that's way too many conversations I have to have day in and day out. When does a tea party end, or does it never end?
G: Once my doors are open, my guideline for myself is the tea party is over when the tea party is over. It goes until there are no more guests. Which could be 3 in the morning depending on where it is or when it is. It just depends. I have to balance serving with a lot of personal time and alone time and rest. I can't serve tea every day all day. There's definitely a lot of time not spent serving tea.
N: You said on average for the last 10 years, 8 cups a day every single day.
G: But that could also be, I could have served 2,000 cups over a weekend at a festival and then not served tea for a month. So it balances out over time.
N: So you do need space for yourself and you recharge and then you go back out and serve by hosting another tea party.
G: Precisely. And it's all about where I am. What is going on? Is there an art walk? Where are there going to be people walking around? Not every place and every time is an ideal time to serve tea. There are a lot of factors that play in. It self-regulates to some extent.
Mish: Hi, Giusepi, thank you for sharing your wonderful story. It's been delightful to listen to you. I don't have a question, just your call made me smile so because it took me back over 60 years ago when I was a little girl, about 6 or 7, I had an Alice in Wonderland tea set. And I never forgot that tea set, and it was not a real tea set. It was plastic and it had beautiful colored scenes from the book and I used to set up this little tea set--I lived in a very big apartment building, we were on the third floor of a four-floor walk-up. I'd set up my little tea set outside my apartment door on the marble floor of the lobby and I'd invite all my friends in the building. We were drinking imaginary tea of course because it was a plastic tea set, and it made me realize, I said, wow it took me 60 years to realize that I think I was serving up community because it was bringing in the children and one friend would tell another friend. We did this pretty often and the circle kept growing.
I wanted to thank you for giving me such a delightful epiphany. I've often wondered why I've never forgotten this tea set and why I never forgot the little tea parties. I realized because, without knowing it, I was serving up community. Thank you for such a delightful trip down memory lane for me.
G: My pleasure. I think what you're saying is so important. I think it's not even necessarily about tea, and that's something that I try to say a lot because--you had empty cups. I think a lot of people who I talk to think that I'm just really into tea, and in reality it's just about gathering people, it's just a vehicle for that. So I think you're on to something and I appreciate you sharing that story.
N: Harry Bressman writes a comment and says, "Giusepi has a really unique way of getting people to think, not necessarily about something we don't already know, but more about what we tend to easily forget. Inspirational, indeed."
Another question from Lynn Quach: Do you post your truck schedule and where you will be at?
G: My travel plans are pretty unscheduled. I have a regional email list, which is divided mostly by state, sometimes by city and region that I let people know when I'm in their area and give updates to. I don't schedule a lot of things in advance. A lot of it is just showing up and being there. When I do events or festivals, I'll post those usually on Facebook. That's the most up to date info whenever I'm posting something, which is Facebook/freeteaparty and that links to a person on Facebook named Edna Lu the Tea Bus. I apologize, I know a lot of people want to know schedules. That's just not part of the flow of things with the Tea Bus. The regional email list is at freeteaparty.org, there's a contact button there.
N: Speaking of Edna Lu, Giusepi, this is the name of your bus. It's its own concoction. You built it up, it had a rebirth day in 2008. It's run on vegetable oil, thermal energy from the engine heats up the water, all kinds of good stuff. Can you share a little about Edna?
G: A lot of building on Edna was following some of these permaculture ideas where, instead of seeing things as objects, seeing relationships between them, so what are the outputs of one thing that can become the inputs of another. So there's a lot of really fun systems. There's solar power that runs lights, fridge, water pumps, computer, tools, etc. Waste energy from the sun once my batteries are full heats my hot water tank. The engines are only 15-35% efficient. Most of the energy is lot is the form of heat, so I recapture that in my hot water tank. That's just a few examples of some really fun things about Edna. She's a living ecosystem of inputs and outputs.
One of the things that I think people are really curious about that I've been working on, especially over the last winter-- I've been writing the Tea Bus factory service manual, which is an overview of all the systems for anyone undertaking small-scale, off-grid, DIY, sustainable and/or mobile living systems. So it could be someone building out a bus or a tiny house or a food cart or an off-grid cabin, but it uses the tea bus as an example for a lot of those systems for people to get inspired. It will have a creative commons license, free to download, and it's my way to take what I've learned and to share it with people, because those are some of the most common questions people ask, the technical stuff about this bus and lifestyle.
N: It's quite a marvel and given all this, you're able to sustain yourself and this whole tea party enterprise, if we want to call it that, on just $6-$9,000 a year. Is that right?
G: Yeah. Last year I made $4,000. The year before I made $9,000. Part of it is, again, those relationships. Most people pay for fuel. My fuel costs are next to nothing because I use recycled vegetable oil. Most people pay for electricity; I have solar panels. Again, that's why I feel relationships are the highest form of currency.
Zar Yay: Thanks, Giusepi. Coming from the fact that I've got a couple of kids roughly your age and I talk to them about their lives. I think about you, you've been serving people tea, but then at the end of the day I picture you sleeping by yourself in your bus. I'm wondering if you have a thought or a vision of life going forward. Do you see yourself with family of any kind? Do you see yourself continuing to live by yourself in your bus? What does life going forward look like to you?
G: I do believe that life going forward is different for every person. I have been, for the last year full time, living with my companion, Allie. She's been on the bus with me. For a few years before that, about 6 months of the year, we've been traveling together. But for me, I think that it's a tough question. Personally, at this point in my life, I don't plan on having kids, which is maybe an implied part of your question.
There is an element I think people see of a catch-22, where here I am talking about community, but also traveling and having lots of fleeting, short interactions with people. I guess my response to some of that is that there are many many deep relationships built along the way. There are a lot of people and a lot of places that I continually go back to. A lot of the deep connections that are made are not between me and anyone else, it's between two other people who met on the tea bus. That's a huge part of it. I can't have a deep interaction and a deep connection with 20,000 people.
Zar Yay: Yeah. I'm thinking about something you said earlier that the tea party is over when the tea party is over. In that spirit, I think the connections happen where the connections happen.
N: That brings up an interesting point, Giusepi. When you first started to do this, you were 22. What did your parents think of your decision to just say, hey I've found my calling, it's about tea and I'm going to give free tea to everybody. Were they accepting of it? Did they think it was a little off balance? Did they try to talk you out of it? What was their response?
G: I think that I had done enough crazy things already at that point in my life and always found myself in good enough situations that my parents were pretty comfortable with it. I do have to say my mom is a little more open-minded than my dad and she is a huge supporter. My dad, he's a skeptic in general so I take his skepticism with a grain of salt. But when I first bought the bus he was there and helped me look at it. He gave me a thumbs up, which I think was a big deal for him. I feel very supported from the beginning, building the tea bus from both my parents.
N: Has your parents' perception of what you're doing changed over the last 10 years? As they have read some of your stuff or heard some of your stories, as they have seen you transform over the last 10 years, has their perception changed?
G: Yeah, I think they see it as a success in some ways. My mom kind of always has; my dad takes a little more convincing. But I think he appreciates some elements. There was a New York Times article that came out last November about the tea bus when we were in New York City and for some people I think that's a sense of validation. I think stuff like that for my dad makes it a little bit more validating.
Pancho: This is really sweet to hear how you've been growing and going deeper in your journey since we met 9 years ago in the Free Farm Stand. I'm really moved by how you've been embodying all this. What you said, I remember that first moment when we met that it's all about relationships. Actually, we met through Brother Tree, one of the teachers here about relationships and gifts. I have a present for you.
This is a story about tea, and the story goes: these two former Jewish soldiers were on a bike trip 8 or 9 years ago. They came to this place where I was volunteering and they shared this story. They were former soldiers and they were in Iraq. One of them was the captain of a platoon and they were doing these raids to [inaudible] insurgents and rebels in Iraq, Baghdad. They encountered this house, it was so beautiful in the middle of the desert with this garden. It was such a beautiful house, they thought, this cannot be. The insurgents and rebels have to be there. So they were going around destroying all houses and, lo and behold, this house, they just went there and started wrecking and tearing apart everything.
All of a sudden, this brother dressed in beautiful Iraqi clothes comes with a tray of tea, and in perfect English, looks into the eyes of the captain and says, "Would you like to have a cup of tea?" This brother was sharing with us. That was the moment that I decided to quit the army. So we asked him, have you been in contact with this brother from Iraq. He said no. Well, if you would have him right here, right now in front of you, what would you tell him? He said, even just a small act of kindness can change the life of a human being forever. I'm so grateful for this brother...[inaudible].
Given all this reality that's happening right now on the planet, that was the gift, that story. Now here comes the question, brother. Given all this madness happening all over the planet...what if you bring...[your tea bus]...to one of these places where they need a lot of love, but also that presence?
N: That's a great question. So Giusepi, any thoughts? Would you take Edna to Dallas tomorrow and use tea as an instrument for peace?
G: Well, I agree, those are really important places and issues that we are facing today. I'm all about serving tea at places that need stuff like that. Just this winter, we served tea at a Black Lives Matter rally in Durham, NC. I'm open. I operate on whim and invitation. I'm totally open to invitations to do stuff like that. I think part of the journey that I'm on is a journey to shift culture and to change minds. Whether it's in Dallas or in West Virginia or wherever it is, on the street. Public perception and public opinion is at the mercy of culture. So no matter where tea serving happens, it's part of the solution to some of those problems. It's part of the activism. But I'm open and I'm happy--invitation and I'm there.
Pancho: This is beautiful. It's such a great way to erase these imaginary lines that humans draw in the dirt. And you're doing it also with non-violence economics. It's anchored in love, so I'm super happy--I'm smiling from ear to ear. Thank you for blessing our hearts with your presence on this planet.
G: Pancho, I remember meeting you vividly at the Free Farm Stand and I think there was a lot in our conversation that you were definitely a part of inspiring. I remember you giving me some pointers about some of the wording in my website about getting it right and better. I really appreciate where you come from and I remember you as someone who has dedicated their life to service. I appreciate that and I thank you for that.
N: Giusepi, you and Pancho have one very significant person in common, which is one of your role models in Gandhi. I've read on your website that you've got a wide ranging series of role models, from Gandhi to Diggers to Kerouac. Can you share a little bit about your role models.
G: I think what a lot of hem have in common is that they have strong value sets. A lot of their strongest ideals are some of my strongest ideals--Gandhi obviously, nonviolence is a huge element for him in creating political change. The Diggers, they were trying to create a free society in the sense of non-monetary, in the 60s and 70s, mostly based around San Francisco. But they pulled their inspiration from a group of people in England in, I think, the 1600s who were trying to do the same thing. I don't know, I think a lot of the people that I chose to name there on my website as inspirations are people who, from a broad swath, represent everything from nonviolence to working people to going money-free.
N: That's great. We have a comment from Bradley Stoll, it says, "Super inspiring, Giusepi. Now this is a Tea Party I can get behind." That's a pun on the Tea Party movement on the other side.
G: Just a note on that: it's been really interesting to navigate that. I named what I did the Free Tea Party probably about 3 or 4 years before the Tea Party movement started, so it's been an interesting struggle.
N: Do people come up to you and say, are you with the right-wing faction of the country and what are your beliefs on guns and all that kind of stuff?
G: Yeah, I recall one time serving tea at an art walk in Eureka, CA and having a bunch of high school students on board and one of their teachers came up and said, "Free tea party, huh? What is your purpose? What are your political views?" Basically, thought that I was trying to serve free tea to convince someone of a certain political belief--which, in my mind, I would love to serve tea at a Tea Party rally. I've done Occupy Oakland with the tea bus and I like some of these radical movements, whether or not my politics agree with them. I think a big part of the tea bus is to overcome a lot of those and to realize there are a lot more similarities between us than differences.
N: This is probably a question that's on a lot of people's minds. Someone says, tea is great--we have many examples like the one Pancho shared. There's another one that I think of Satish Kumar who walked all the way from India to US and along the way, someone gave him a tea bag and said, can you give this to the four super powers of the world that have nuclear weapons at the time. And he actually ended up going to the White House and France and Japan and all these heads of state and gave them a tea bag and said, if you ever feel like blowing everybody up, just take a pause, have some tea and see if you want to do it again. This became a very celebrated story--this is several decades ago.
But if someone says to you, let's get 100 of these buses going around the world. How do you respond to that? Do you say, that's just ambitious, let's let it be organic? Or do you say, I would be happy to support? Or do you say, here's a plan and this is how we can take it out. How do you respond when people say, let's create more Giusepis in the world?
G: Well, I am all in support of anyone doing this--whether it's serving free tea or offering another skill or service or resource. I am 100% in agreement. I support it in whatever way I can. So let's do it.
N: How do you think we can do it? Let's say I'm a person who can't go out and live the way you do, but that wants to support it? What would you say to them?
G: I think it's just as simple as sharing with people that you meet and sharing in a non-calculated way where what you get in return isn't necessarily money or another object. When you take expectation out of sharing, it opens up all sorts of doors of community and even reciprocity. So, in that sense, it really is just as simple as sharing. I think a lot of people are like, I want to get a bus and live in it or I want to serve free tea. And I say, great, do it.
But, really what it comes down to is think about what skills and resources you have, where your interests lie, what are the areas that inspire you? For me in particular, I can be successful with this because I've got a technical/mechanical mind and I can build and maintain the bus. I also really like to travel and have lived on the road for a huge portion of my life. So all of these elements combine to make it much easier for me to be successful in certain ways. I guess the homework for some people is to think about where your skills lay. Where do your resources lay? What is missing in your community? What are the strengths of your community that are untapped? Etc, etc.
N: What a beautiful response. Thank you, Giusepi for leading your life in this way, for aligning with these values for planting seeds in so many hearts that have crossed your way and continuing to do this for however long. The tea party ends when the tea party ends, but it has gone on for 10 years. And on behalf of the world, really, I express my gratitude and certainly on behalf of everyone on this call, for sharing so candidly and openly.
One last question before we head into our minute of gratitude, how can we as the ServiceSpace community support your work with Edna or in your own personal life? Are there things we can do to support you personally?
G: Yeah, I say this as humbly as I can. I've had major issues being a receiver, which I think is one of my lessons in life. But my website is freeteaparty.org. There is a support page on there and it has three different ways of supporting the project. One is--what everyone does in society, which is money--a donate button.
Another is a way to share resources and things that are needed by the bus. So maybe that's things that are continually needed or needed at this moment that are just resources. There's something that you might already have or you know someone who has a good connection.
There's also a share with strangers section, which is going back to just creating a sharing world. Part of that obviously encourages you to share with people, but you can share, if you're interested, share with the Gift and Take, which could be anything from small gifts, something you want me to write on a share card for someone. It can be money or herbal medicine. Any of those things. Check out freeteaparty.org and see the share page there.
N: Thank you so much. Thank you to Giusepi for living his values, for aligning his life with his moral framework and not the other way around. Thank you for being such an example, Giusepi. Thank you to people who volunteer, behind the scenes, that have been tirelessly working and people post-call who will be editing the audio and transcribing this as their labor of love. We're grateful for it all. Thank you to all the listeners, people listening from all around the world. It's so beautiful to be creating this space.
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