“The Holy Holly Herb” read the top of my invoice. The people at Yerba Mate Land left the mark of their hand on the bottom of the page, “Madison, Thank you J Salud.” It was a big order, but it doesn’t take long to plough through a bag of the magical herbs when you have three mate addicts at home. Plus, I wanted to try the different cuts that I learned about in my new book, Mateology. It turns out that growing and preparing mate for sale is an intricate process: the South American version of roasting coffee for consumption. This heavy box of herbs and my new book marked the beginning of my obsession with the symbol of South America. Can it be considered a collection if the materials will be consumed?
Mate is the only thing that all homes have at all times.
We had to be prepared for the possibility of Argentinian visitors . . . in Memphis, TN. We brought a couple bags home. It is not explicitly stated on the signs in the security line, but it is not advisable to attempt to fly with yerba mate. If you choose to do so, plan for delays: you will undoubtedly be stopped by TSA.
“Is this your bag?”
“Come over to this table, I’m going to have to inspect it.”
“Are there any sharp objects or substances that might harm me in any way?”
She pulls out books and glasses then the plastic bag containing the gourd, bombilla, and yerba, and looks completely perplexed… Is this woman really stupid enough to try to travel with a bag of weed?
“Oh that’s yerba mate!”
Her expression is even more confused and concerned.
“It’s a tea from Argentina; it’s loose leaf. I promise it’s okay.”
Still confused, she swipes the tea bag, and tests it for god knows what in that mysterious machine.
Mate is a manifestation – an herbal conductor of openness and friendship.
Our guide, Ismael was shocked to learn that I drank mate at home. I didn’t do it right though; I brewed it in my coffee maker or through a strainer like loose leaf tea. He demonstrated the proper way to prepare the mate while we were driving to the Glaciar Perito Moreno. He carefully poured the yerba into the mate gourd, until it was ¾ full. Then he explained that you cover the opening at the top of the gourd with your hand and shake it at an angle, creating a mountain of mate on one side of the cup. He poured cold water at the bottom of the mountain because he said it prepared and protected the yerba from the incoming hot water. He placed the bombilla (straw) in the water at the base of the yerba, then filled the gourd with hot water, only pouring in the hole around the straw. “You never should pour boiling water on the mate because it will burn,” he explained. “I will now test it a couple times to make it good to drink.” The four of us watched from the back of the van as Ismael passed the mate to the van driver. A couple sips, and the driver passed it back to Ismael. He poured fresh hot water in the gourd, and turned to offer us his mate. Our faces must have read absolute horror. North Americans do not share straws.
Mate doesn’t refuse anyone.
After our hike, we sat in a circle in the living room that smelled of cedar and burning firewood. Lucas prepared the mate, and began the ritual. He took the first couple rounds before passing the mate to Charlie. He explained the rules as we went around. The cervador should point the bombilla toward the person receiving the mate. Only the cervador can pour the mate. When my mom received her first round, her hand gravitated toward the bombilla, and Lucas immediately said, “Don’t move the bombilla!” He said it was a cardinal sin, and we all looked at him like he was the Pope. We asked him for guidance. This was complicated. We proceeded with the mate passing and the conversation, but every few minutes, Lucas would add another rule. When my dad said “Gracias” upon receiving the mate on the second or third round, Lucas corrected him, explaining that it was good Spanish to say thank you, but you only say “Gracias” in a mate circle when you’re finished taking mate. “Bull! Lucas you are making this up!” my dad argued. Lucas added again, “Oh yes well you really need to walk backward and …” His voice was drowned out by our burst of laughter.
By the end of the mate circle, he declared us true Argentinians.
Mate is the ethical, honest, and loyal unpretentiousness found in sharing.
At our last mate circle at the lodge, Gil told us we were passing around too many germs. “Maddie it’s like you’re kissing all these people… and all the other people who have used that straw! It’s gross!”
I shrugged and took another sip.
Krutika walked in and asked what was going on. Lucas offered her the mate, and the first thing she did was move the straw. We all yelled at her “Don’t move the straw!!!” Her eyes looked terrified but her smile gleamed with sass as she slowly removed her hand from its grip on the bombilla.
“What is it? How do I do it? Is it going to get me high?”
“No, no, no; just drink it.” Lucas instructed, “But don’t move the bombilla.”
“Does it have caffeine?”
“No it has matteine.”
“What is that?”
“Coffee has caffeine and mate has matteine.”
She hesitantly sipped, and joined the circle.
Although the other guests and staff at the lodge were complete strangers, we became family in the mate circle.
Mate is the only thing that’s shared between parents and children without arguing or blaming each other for something.
I should have initiated a mate chat with dad. Maybe he would have accepted my decision to apply for a job in Argentina instead of trying to argue with me. I could have explained how visiting Argentina opened my mind. The hurricane force winds knocked me off my feet, literally, and the wild expanses, people, and culture captivated me. Living in Memphis for twenty-two years began to feel suffocating. I needed change. I needed room to grow. I needed to call another place my home, even if it’s only temporary. I needed to pursue a new path. Times of transition are exhilarating and terrifying. My younger brother and I evacuated Memphis in the same summer. Our parents are supportive us both of us, but that doesn’t mean they want us to build our lives across the country. They wants us to come home, and I understand their desire for our family to stay close physically and relationally, but my brother and I both need space to begin our lives as adults. I’m afraid to tell my parents my dreams and my vision for life ten years down the road because I’m not sure where that road will take me. I have given up my instinct to obsessively plan every moment of my future because life forces changes to my plans with the same rapidity and violence of the winds in Patagonia.
Mate is poured in great modesty.
Despite my spills and mom’s refusal to follow the proper serving ritual, we took mate by the fire on vacation in Colorado. We were warmed from the inside out by the bitterness of the herbs and our memories of mate circles in the lodge among strangers. After a long day of hiking and skiing, we sat together as I tried to learn Spanish on Duolingo and she researched trips for the summer. We’re going back to the land of mate.
Mate makes you feel included.
She taught me Spanish when I was sixteen. My last year of mandatory Spanish in high school; I could not wait for it to end. It’s an understatement to say that the Spanish instruction I received growing up was inconsistent. I had a new teacher almost every year from kindergarten through my junior year of high school. Despite my lack of a foundational knowledge of the language, I maintained a glimmer of hope that Señora could help me. After all, she was the only native Spanish speaker to ever teach me. My Spanish did not improve in her class. When I visited four years after my graduation, I thought she wouldn’t remember me, but as soon as I crossed the threshold of her door, her face lit up and she exclaimed, “Hola Maddie!”
I had a surprise for her. I recounted our journey to Argentina, her native land. I showed her a picture of one of the plaques in the glacier museum, citing her husband’s research. She was overjoyed. She told me, “necesitás un novio argentino!” I responded, “Yo quiero! Jajaja”
She taught me the word “che,” the Argentine way of saying a casual “hey.” Then she pulled out a piece of paper for a quick grammar lesson about the vos verb conjugations, which are used instead of the tú form in Argentina. She then showed me where to buy cheap mate in Memphis. Apparently there are several international markets that carry the sacred herb, but one is particularly cheap.
The next time I visit, I will come bearing mate.
Now you know, a mate isn’t just a mate…