Bold and bright, like something from another era, the colorful bus at Edgewater Park demanded attention. With rich psychedelic colors swirling and colliding over every inch of its surface, it was no surprise to see a torn cardboard sign propped up in the window reading "Hungry, Hungry Hippies."
Previous travelers had left their mark. Both the interior and exterior of the bus were peppered with names and quotes, such as "A day without laughter is a day wasted" and "Those who make a peaceful revolution impossible make a violent revolution inevitable." It was like a tapestry of travels across the United States for the past five years.
As a small crowd gathered to take pictures, an affable, red-haired man with a smile and cigarette on his lips emerged and introduced himself as Mitch Brown, 31. The Toledo native is a current traveler on the bus as well as its resident mechanic. He in turn introduced the owner: Chu Bbakka, 46, an Elyria native and an ordained reverend of the Universal Life Church.
The reverend's frenzy of brown curly hair would be enough to explain why he has chosen the popular Star Wars character Chewbacca as his namesake. But he assured us there was more to it than that.
"I was given that name at my first Rainbow Gathering — my beard was down to here," he said, making a motion just above his waistline. "And I've very much got his attitude. I'm kind, I'm loving, I'm furry, and I'm willing to do just about anything to help anybody."
Charity is Chu Bbakka's full-time vocation. After acquiring the Wellington Village School bus from a scrapyard in 2007, he transformed it into a mobile kitchen and has been living on donations ever since. He is part of the Rainbow Emergency Management Assembly (REMA), which was noted for helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
"If some disaster hit Cleveland, I'd be obliged to open up the kitchen wherever I could and feed people whatever I can get my hands on," he said. Pointing toward the lake, he added, "If worse comes to worst, I'll pull fish out of there and see if we can pull the 'fishes and loaves' maneuver. I've seen it done."
Along with offering a beacon of hope to the hungry, the bus helps stranded travelers get from one Rainbow Gathering to another. After a July Gathering in Bristol, Tennessee, Brown recalled, "We left with 24 people, four dogs, one cat, and I believe someone had a rat or something like that."
Before moving on to the next Gathering, Chu Bbakka stopped in Cleveland for some medical appointments and to visit family and friends. Along with Brown, he had his five-year old son, Alexion-ais, with him; the boy is home-schooled on the bus.
The whole scene called to mind Ken Kesey's psychedelic bus "Furthur," which pulled into Cleveland in May 1997 as part of the Rock Hall's I Want to Take You Higher exhibit. Chu Bbakka's bus has a "Furthur" reference spray-painted on its front bumper, though Brown feels that "Weird Load," painted on the back of the bus, is more appropriate.
"It's been a really strange trip, I'll tell you that much," he confided. "You meet all kinds of people."
Interestingly enough, painting the bus was initially done out of necessity. "When we got out to California, I was informed by several different law enforcement agencies that if your bus is more than 30 percent yellow, it is subject to confiscation due to impersonating a school bus," said Chu Bbakka. So he bought 10 assorted colors of spray-paint and went to work.
After that, people came up and asked if they could add their own graffiti, offers that he gladly accepted.
The bus' one-of-a-kind look reflects the philosophy of its inhabitants: a mix of altruism, fraternity, and alternative living personified by the Rainbow Gatherings.
Chu Bbakka has been a member of the tribe since 1991, when he attended his first Gathering. Brown had a similar conversion after a brief career as a nomadic worker that included a stint on the docks in Tampa and on a produce farm in Tennessee. He described a recent Gathering this way: "Fifteen drum circles, 40 fires, probably 30 or 40 kitchens throughout the woods. It's completely awesome. I ditched my normal life for this."
The big international Rainbow Gathering this year will be held in Guatemala in October. There also will be a year-end Calendar Gathering at the sacred Mayan temple in Palenque, Mexico, beginning on December 1 and concluding on the 31st or "the end of time" — whichever comes first. Chu Bbakka plans to attend both events.
Brown and Chu Bbakka's immediate destination when they pulled out of Cleveland was Vermont, where there is a Rainbow Gathering scheduled for mid-August. What may seem like aimless wandering to some people is, for them, a rewarding existence outside the mainstream.
"Some people hold onto things in life so tightly," said Chu Bbakka. "They hold life like a handful of sand. Then once you open your hand, there's nothing left."
For more on the travels of Chu Bbakka, check out facebook.com/chu.bbakka.