Saturday, October 16, 2010

My mates and mate

Yesterday, a chilly, spring-time-in-Argentina day, my classmates and I got a happy warm-up with a surprise from nuestra profesora, Fernanda, when we returned from our 11 o'clock recreo (recreational break). I was so excited when I saw her purplish thermos and small wooden cup sitting in front of her, filled with green herbs and silver straw standing on end in the middle. Fernanda, who looks like Eva Mendes and makes us all speak solamente castellano while we are in class, was smiling. I knew what this meant.

I suddenly got goose bumps from anticipation. After four whole weeks in Argentina, I thought this day would never come. And here it was, my first time! Fernanda was about to share with me and my classmates one of the most ingrained traditions of Argentina—the sharing of yerba mate.

If you know an Argentine, chances are they drink yerba mate (pronounced share-buh mah-teh). It is the drink of choice (over coffee or tea) for 90 percent of Argentines, but from what I can see on the street, I believe that statistic is wrong. It must be at least 98 percent.

Yerba mate and the traditional gourds, bombillas (silver straws with a filter on the end) and thermoses used to serve the drink are carried everywhere in Buenos Aires, everyday. Instead of carrying a Starbucks coffee in hand like we do in the states, Argentines carry their thermos of water tucked under their arm. If you pass a building with a security guard, he or she usually has a gourd with silver straw nearby. I have rarely been to a milonga where I didn't see at least one milonguero with a thermos and gourd sitting on their table, and if there is a restroom attendant, she is inevitably sipping mate as she doles out the toilet paper and paper towels. Vendors sell it on the street and all of the supermercados have almost an entire aisle dedicated to the herbs. (You only have two brands of toilet paper to choose from in Baires, but about 50 brands of yerba mate.)

An Argentine home is not complete without at least one gourd and bombilla, including my own apartment. I was also furnished with an electric water pitcher to make preparation quick and easy. I have been anxious to try out my supplies if the time ever came.

So now you are probably wondering why the heck I didn't just go out and buy myself some herbs. Got the equipment. It's readily available. What's the big deal?

Well, you see, I am a bit of a traditionalist and yerba mate is the drink of friendship. Although the Argentines drink it on their own, it is traditionally meant to be shared by friends, from the same cup and bombilla, along with a great conversation.

I wanted my first try to be an authentic experience. I didn't want to just order mate in a café or ask the grocer at the corner market how to make it. I wanted an Argentine friend (or at least a knowledgeable expat) to make it for me, to tell me how they like it best, to show me how they make it, and then have a great conversation about love, and life, and philosophy. At the very least, I hoped that I may happen to be seated at a milonga with a group of friendly women that just happened to be sharing mate and were willing to offer it to the yanqui.

But, I have to be honest. As much as I pondered about the ritual of drinking mate, I never thought I would actually like the drink. I am not a tea drinker, and I do not like coffee. My drink of choice has always been water, and since yerba mate is usually described as "bitter," I really couldn't imagine acquiring a taste for it.

Fernanda filled the little wooden gourd with water and passed it first to Grant from New Zealand on her right. "No, gracias," he said, shaking his head, cheeks turning crimson, "no me gusta."

"You've tried it before?" Fernanda asked, in Castellano. "Try just a taste of mine," she urged, "everyone makes it different, you might like it this time."

He took a quick sip, made a face, shook his head again, ears crimson now, too, and passed it on to Australian Bridget. Fernanda gave a big laugh.

Bridge tasted, stifled a yucky face, giggled and then tried to pass it back to Fernanda with a "Muy bien, gracias." 

Fernanda continued to laugh. "No," she explained, passing it back to Bridget, "you drink until the liquid is gone and then I refill it and pass it to the next friend." Bridge sipped again, her blue eyes suddenly reflecting a connection to the tradition. She smiled, and finished the small pool of herb infused water.

Fernanda took the cup and filled it with more water. She then handed it to Brazilian Carla. Mate is popular in parts of Brazil as well, but Carla admitted she wasn't too keen on it. She was, however, respectful of the ritual and sipped her portion with a smile, too, before passing it on to Tilde from Sweden.

As the gourd was passed around from classmate to classmate with varying degrees of approval, I anticipated my own reaction. Would it be horrible, I wondered? How bitter is bitter? These people are all coffee drinkers and they are making faces. What am I going to think?

Suddenly, Irish Brian next to me was finished, and with a quick fill up from Fernanda, it was my turn. I put my lips around the silver straw and took a small sip, unsure. The bombilla warmed to almost too hot as the liquid rose through metal, passed my lips to my tongue. I, too, smiled, surprised by its sweetness.

"¡Es muy bien!" I exclaimed, and then tried to put sentences together to explain myself.

First, I wanted to describe the flavor, like a green tea, but richer, more flavorful, distinctive. Spicier, perhaps. I wanted to tell Fernanda how excited I was to finally be able to share this ritual. To let her know that I was honored to be served by her and thrilled to be sharing this experience with my seven classmates from all around the world. I wanted to thank her for sharing such a brilliant tradition in a way that could not be more special and memorable. I wanted to gush! I wanted to be eloquent! Crap.

With only four weeks of lessons in Castellano (OK, four weeks plus over four years of Spanish between high school and college over 16 years ago), I could only piece together something like, “¡Yo no tomo té o café, solamente agua. Pero es está ¡muy bien!”

Fernanda, kindred spirit that she is, read the exclamation marks in my spoken phrases. She understood what my enthusiasm meant, in spite of my lack of vocabulary and sound grammar. She beamed at me as I finished up my turn, passed the gourd back to her for a refill and then handed it over to my fellow estadounidense, Chris. 
Fernanda explained that she uses peppermint infused yerba, as she showed us the bag, and sweetens the water when she puts it in the thermos so the outcome isn't bitter. She shared with us the benefits of mate—how it is good for the immune system and the digestive tract, and that it is a natural appetite suppressant and gives you “mucho energía.”

For the next hour-and-a-half, we passed around the little gourd from amigo to amigo, mate to mate, Fernanda refreshing the herbs as necessary, using the filter at the end of the bombilla to remove the depleted yerba and prepare each fresh batch. Annie, the other Swede, shared her cookies, and Carla dug out two packages of crackers from her backpack to pass around.

Our conversation passed from yerba mate to our favorite love songs and movies, our families and beloved pets, the culture of our countries and Johnny Cash. We spoke in broken Castellano, none of us, other than Fernanda, native speakers, but we all understood each other. And we all appreciated the importance of great conversation, mates and mate.



  1. what a wonderful introduction to Mate.

    hope your cold is all gone now...Cindy

  2. It was a very special time. My cold is pretty much gone, just a tiny bit of congestion still, but I think that has a lot to do with the smoggy air.

  3. For the record, the blue-eyed Aussie now likes mate! Maybe for the connections with the oh-so Australian word "mate"?

  4. As does this estadonidense, Bridge, although, the caffeine makes me a little wacky. ;)

  5. How in the world did the conversation end up on Johnny Cash? Such an odd place for a conversation to go. Hope you bring some of this home with you to share with us!

  6. Amy, I can't remember really, you know how conversations just wander in all directions. I think we were talking about music from our countries and, of course, Johnny Cash is a legend so someone played a little Walk the Line on their iPod so Fernanda would know who we were talking about.

    Will be buying a mate set to take home with me before I leave. Next time you come for a visit I will share.

  7. that sounds delicious!! I need to try some!

  8. Next time you are in Orlando, Lisa, come on over and I will share.