What an unusual weekend! Ally, Edna Lu the teabus, and I spent almost a month making our way from Austin to Boston for the International Herb Symposium. The whole trip was interesting because on one hand I had committed to the event, but on the other hand, it didn’t feel like the event had committed to us. This, combined with the fact that we fell in love with so many people and places along the way and wanted to spend more time each place we visited, made for an interesting balance to try and be had.
At the first Free Herbalism Project in Eugene, OR in August of 2013 I had the wonderful chance of having (renowned herbalist) Rosemary Gladstar over for tea. Excited about the teabus, she invited me to bring it to the 2015 biennial International Herb Symposium that she helps put on. I kept this invitation filed away for when the time was near. A few months prior to the Symposium I got in touch with the event organizers and it seemed like a “go” for us.
First off, the organizers were quick to ask what our ideal situation and setup was. It made me feel welcome and invited. We don’t need electricity, we don’t need money, we don’t need lodging, we don’t need anything other than entry registration for two tea helpers (Mountain Rose Herbs had given me their extra registration), a sink to wash dishes, some ice, and to be included in the meal plan for attendees. In return myself, Ally, and another friend Tyla would provide free tea, a lounge space, and work our butts off.
In doing events like the IHS, it takes a lot work. Because I don’t do a lot of larger events, I have to do a fair bit of shopping around at thrift and other stores for more mugs, large glass containers for sun tea, an extra pump top thermos, more cushions, local honey, etc. Ally and I started this process when we left Austin, and finished it a few weeks later on the day before the event. I also like to make sure I have a tank full of good water (in this case, spring water). All items have to be thoroughly cleaned and the bus must be in immaculate condition. All of this on top of traveling 2000 miles, collecting and filtering vegetable oil along the way, serving tea, gathering and making food, helping people who need it, and living a generally DIY-lifestyle – this takes a lot of work.
Living a low-monetary input life requires lots of hands-on skills and projects, but also lots of relationship-building. These relationships revolve around building trust, collaboration, and reciprocal altruism – which is the activity of sharing with people simply because you want to see them succeed, but also know in doing so you are strengthening and supporting your community, which will in turn will do the same for you. It felt like I had my hand extended to provide for the IHS, but they didn’t have a hand extended back. They were happy to provide the basic service of a sink to wash dishes and ice for iced tea, but other than that, there was no support for us being at IHS.
My first hint of feeling a little un-supported was IHS not wanting to give us each a meal plan. Okay, I understand, IHS is a fundraiser for United Plant Savers. Then, they asked us to look into getting a health permit (see the relevance of this in our Texas Tea Festival blog entry). Luckily, the woman at the health department said we didn’t need a permit to brew tea for a short-term fundraiser. Then an email to IHS organizers with important info wasn’t returned. As the event drew near, and we were driving closer, there was a slew of things that happened: IHS took back how many event registrations they offered us, they didn’t have any posting about the teabus on their website, Facebook, or even the final event schedule PDF, they had a free tea table planned that they hadn’t mentioned to us, etc. In the end, we didn’t even get one full registration for the event – only two single day passes for my tea helpers (even though Mountain Rose had given a full one of theirs to me).
Regardless of all this, we arrived to make tea.
The International Herb Symposium offers an excellent assortment of classes, workshops, and hands-on herbal learning opportunities from an assortment of regional and international teachers. It takes place on the beautiful campus of Wheaton College in Norton, MA every other year. From my experience, the knowledge shared, the friendships created, and the lasting impressions that people carry from this event back into the world are top notch, to say the least.
We set up the usual medium-sized event setup – Edna’s telescopic shade structure with a half-a-parachute, outdoor rugs and cushions, waste vegetable oil-powered lanterns, Free Tea signs – everything to tantalize passersby to stop and share a hot cuppa. We were fairly centrally-located on a nice lawn, with lots of morning sun and afternoon shade – quite ideal. The only difference between other events and this one??? Almost no one was stopping for tea.
On Friday, the first day of the event, a few stragglers stopped in, and as the first half of Saturday rolled past, it seemed like this was going to be the trend for the weekend. Ally, Tyla and I literally sat sipping tea for hours amidst a quiet tea tent on Saturday morning, with a full pot of chai, gallons of fresh sun tea and no guests. As we watched people scurrying about with to-go cups in hand, we began to question why this was happening. Was it because this was the teabus’ first event east of the Mississippi? In the west, people know us wherever we go, and our reputation precedes us. Here we were stepping into new territory. Was it because east coasters have a different mindset that makes them less likely to approach something as different as a free tea bus? (Nothing’s free!) Was it because there was a free tea table with to-go cups in the main building? After asking a few folks who had experienced the teabus at other events, this seemed like a likely contributor. Inside the event was a free tea table, with endless hot water in big plastic insulated containers, and stacks of easy to-go cups. Several guests remarked about how busy people were getting from one class to another, and that to-go cups were easier. In other words, taking the time for genuine human interactions isn’t a priority when people have places to be.
Having both a free tea bus and a free tea table seemed like the organizers misjudged the situation. To me, it made sense that the organizers would have seen having both as a redundancy, and suggested that the two were combined. Even though I’m not super fond of disposable cups, I would have agreed to host the free tea table, as well as keep the hot water and tea bags stocked, if I had been asked to. To have another free tea option felt a little disrespectful to me – not because I want to have a monopoly on free tea, but because I want my energy to go into actually being of service. I thought that I would be working as hard as at most other events that I do, but when no one showed up, I felt like I had traveled thousands of miles and worked hard to provide a service that was already being provided. I knew I would have had a bigger impact serving tea at another event or on the street.
Regardless, as Saturday rolled on, more folks began to come to the teabus. This often happens as word spreads about the teabus and the space provided. As more folks came by, and people shared conversation over tea, played music, talked herbal knowledge, and shared in the experience, I knew that I had nothing to worry about. Over the weekend, I was able to see many old friends and made many new. We had a great time sharing in music, telling stories, dressing up, and staying up late laughing.
From nearly the beginning of all of my interactions with IHS coordinators, I felt unsupported in being there. I’ve had this happen before. Usually, people have no idea the value of having the teabus there until the event starts. When it picks up, lots of people come to the bus, and it becomes a hub, then organizers start to realize. But this didn’t happen. It didn’t become a hub – for the first time in teabus history. By the end of 99% of events I do, organizers ask for the teabus to come back next year, or next time. This didn’t happen at IHS.
Instead, I felt like I had promised so much, but because the “demand” for my services was low, it showed the organizers that what I had to offer wasn’t particularly special or important. It was truly a weird experience. I thought that even though I wasn’t met in my conversations with organizers before the event, I was hoping that once we got there, they would realize the teabus offers something worthwhile, and would then reciprocate.
Overall, the importance of the International Herb Symposium wasn’t necessarily in getting there, but in getting the teabus to new and uncharted territories. Here in the Northeast we will meet up with family, old friends, and visit new people and new places. The Northeast is an unfamiliar frontier for the teabus, and one that we’ll be exploring this summer and fall. We hope to see you here!
A huge thank you to Tyla and Ally for helping make the tea zone happen at IHS; to Rosemary Gladstar for having us out (this blog entry definitely does not reflect on her personally as one of the organizers); Mountain Rose Herbs for shipping out a bunch of tea for the event and providing an event registration (or at least trying to); John from LearningHerbs.com for long-term herbal support; Cheng for making a sweet video about the teabus at IHS; Buelo for playing tunes; Erica for the lemon balm for our garden; Jim McDonald for lots of laughs (and help fixing the water filter); and all the Tea Wenches (Ally, Tyla, Mason, Erin, Howie).
Check out this video about the tea bus from IHS: