Keiko, Outbound to Argentina

Hello everyone! Today I will be sharing a funny short story of my first time drinking mate and answer a popular question: what is mate in the first place?

About a year ago, I was a curious girl excited to go on exchange. And while researching about Argentina, I skimmed over an article about mate, but never went into detailed research. All I knew that it was an herbal tea that you drink out of a straw. Little did I know, that there is lots to learn about the art of mate, all of its intricacies, and how it reflects the Argentine way of life.

Short Story:

August 26th 2019 was a normal Monday for many people in Argentina. However for me, it was the beginning of a completely different life called exchange. Around 9:30 am, I got off of a 10 1/2 hour flight from Atlanta, a little shocked at how I had arrived in Argentina alone at 15 years old while simultaneously nervously excited to meet the strangers that would become my new family. And this was just the very beginning. On the same day, around 8pm, I was supposed to meet the mom of the second family I will stay with. But after a 10 hour flight, 3 hour car trip from the airport to my new house, the beginning of culture shock, already feeling homesick, doing a little shopping, and meeting many new people, all I wanted to do was to sleep by the time 8pm came around. But my second host mom was waiting on me, so my first host mom told me we would just go for a "little chat" and leave.

When we got there, my second host mom offered me mate, and I automatically said yes, remembering what Rotary had told me: always say yes to new opportunities. As far as I was concerned, mate is just a tea that you drink out of a straw. I thought, a 5 minute tea session couldn't hurt! But little did I know, there is no such thing as a 5 minute mate. It takes 5 minutes alone to boil the kettle (on a gas stove, we don't use electric kettles here because electricity is expensive). Then, my second host mom put the boiling water into a thermos and set it aside on the counter. After that, she put some loose leaves into a little cup, placed the metal straw, and poured hot water into the cup. After we drank the tea for more than 5 minutes, I was confused as I watched the clock tick by. 15 minutes. 30 minutes. 45 minutes. 1 hour. We kept talking and talking and talking, as my host mom repeatedly poured and poured as we all took turns drinking the peculiar tea. I thought, "what in the world is mate and why does it take so long?". Without wanting to be disrespectful, I finally expressed my exhaustion after about an hour and a half. Finally, the mate session finished, and my host mom and I kissed them on the cheek to say goodbye. As I climbed in the car completely exhausted, I asked my host mom, "so that is a 'little chat?'" and we laughed together as she told me that I should expect to be in conversation for at least 45 minutes/one hour if I say yes to mate.

There have been several similar instances where I had to learn the long way, and while it was sometimes tiring and confusing, it was kind of fun to be in this stage of oblivion because I can laugh at myself with the knowledge that it will pass as I integrate. Now, after five months, I understand why mate takes time and how it relates to the culture here. As far as the Argentinians are concerned, punctuality is not of upmost importance and time well spent is sharing conversations with people. But coming from a more punctual society in the United States and Japan, this was a novelty and it only felt comfortable after I integrated well.

What is it: Mate is a traditional Argentine tea that is usually shared for 45+ minutes with a small group of people (although you can drink it alone if you want to!). The full name of the tea is "yerba mate". Yerba (pronounced share-bah) is the word used for the leaves and twigs of the Ilex paraguariensis plant. Mate (pronounced mah-tay) is the word used for the little cup that holds the tea.

A common misconception: Many foreigners (including myself before coming on exchange) have the idea that every person gets their own mate, however in reality the mate is shared and everyone uses the same bombilla (metal straw).

Where: Most commonly, mate is shared in plazas, parks, or someone's house. In my town, there is about one plaza every eight blocks, which is just a green space for people to socialize. For road trips, mate is a must have. At gas stations on the side of the road or travel stops, there is always a hot water machine to fill up your thermos!

History: The origins of mate come from an indigenous group of South America, the Guarani people. When the Spanish conquerors arrived and expanded in present day Argentina, the native practice of mate expanded to the Vice Royalty of the Río de la Plata (a territory in power of the Spanish Empire, which helped Buenos Aires grow into a bustling port city). From the indigenous Guarani people to people in the Vice Royalty of the Río de la Plata in the 18th century to current day, mate is an important and basic part of life here.

Preparation:

1. Place water in a kettle and bring the water to point where it is almost boiling.

2. Place the water into a thermos (that way you can bring it places).

3. Place the yerba (loose leaves) directly into the mate (cup) until a little more than 1/2 of the mate.

4. Place the bombilla (metal straw) in the mate.

5. Pour the hot water in the mate carefully. About 1/4 of the mate should be filled with the hot water.

Taste: There is mate amargo (bitter) and mate dulce (sweet), those who prefer sweet mate just put in sugar before step 5. Mates made of plastic and glass work better for mate dulce as well as tereré, as the sweetness of the sugar won't stay in the material and will go away once washed. Mates made of wood or gourd are most used for mate amargo.

How: The person who is preparing the mate is called the cebador (male) or cebadora (female). Basically, they are the ones responsible for pouring the water into the mate. Starting with the cebador/a themselves, they pour the hot water into the mate and drink out of the straw until there is no more water left. Then, repeating the process of pouring water, they give the mate to the person on the right. Once that person has completed drinking, they pass it back to the cebador/a. The process repeats, with the same person pouring the water and handing the mate to every individual going in a circle from the cebador/a's right hand-side to left hand-side.

Fun Fact: Depending on who prepares the mate, it can taste differently due to the techniques used. For example, it is quite known among family and friends that my host dad prepares mate much better than my host mom. When preparing the mate, my host dad puts luke-warm water first and then slowly adds hot water so that the yerba does not burn, while my host mom puts in hot water directly the first time, which creates a more bitter/burnt taste.

At the end of the day, it feels like mate is more than a drink. I like to think that mate actually reflects a unique part of Argentine culture. Here, community and connection with people is an important value, which is why mate is literally a custom to share conversations with people intentionally. It is a reason to get together and catch up with friends on a cold winter day or a nice summer evening. It slows life down a little bit and allows you to chat about the little things in life. Now when I talk about my Argentine experience, it is almost impossible to avoid talking about mate; it is the cornerstone of Argentinian way of life.

As always, thanks for reading! I hope you learned something new!

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