The warmth of Yerba Mate
It was cold. Like, really, really cold. I thought that South America was supposed to be warm. But, as we sat there in the kitchen, sharing Yerba Mate, we could see our own breath. I waited anxiously for the mate gourd to finally arrive. Not because I liked it, necessarily, but because if I squeezed it tightly it would heat up the palms of my hands a little bit. And then, as I began to drink, the warm water it contained was a fleeting respite from the frio. I tried to let my lips linger on the warm metal of the bombilla for as long as possible. Then, it ended. An impatient glance from the next in line for the mate forced me to hand it over, back to the cebador.
How I first met Yerba Mate
I first met Yerba Mate in Linares, Chile. I was teaching English at a high school there and lived with a local family, practicing Spanish and experiencing something new. My “host mom” was a fan of Yerba Mate and would prepare it every now and again. Especially, in winter, when Chile can actually get really chilly.
I’d be lying if I told you I loved Yerba Mate right away. I had never been a drinker of tea, so the all-natural flavor of the wet Yerba Mate plant was exotic. But, in South America, if someone offers you mate…..you drink the mate.
After many times drinking I realized that I enjoyed the smooth wave of energy it gave me, and the positive tint it added to my everyday activities.
But then it was time to go home. Back in the US yerba mate is just beginning to become popular. So, I didn’t drink another sip of mate for a long time.
My journey with Yerba Mate in the United States
“What is that? A bong?” Nope, despite what it appeared to be, it was not weed or a pipe. It was my lovely mate and bombilla.
It was my coworker who asked, and I could only laugh as I sat in my work car in Portland, Oregon. I had tried to explain what it was to him before, but I think he likes his own joke more than my answer, so I just let it lie.
I was now a full-blown Yerba Mate addict. Acceptance is the first step to independence, right? Well, in this case, I didn’t want independence. Yerba Mate was a part of my daily life as a delivery driver in the city. I worked from 11-11, six days a week, carrying biological specimens (read poop, pee, blood, etc.) from hospital labs to airports throughout the Pacific Northwest.
To remain engaged throughout the long days, I had been drinking lots of coffee. The first choice of most Americans and definitely the favorite for Northwesterners. But, every cup from stand or store added up, and my breath would start to smell bad….not that it really mattered to someone driving a car full of human excrement. But, this changed when I found that they sold an American brand of Yerba Mate at the grocery store. I unearthed the mate and bombilla that I’d bought in Chile as a souvenir and put them to work!
I preferred Yerba Mate because I could take it on the go. It was less likely to spill in my car. It didn’t stain my teeth or give me bad breath. And it turned out be a lot cheaper. But the most important difference for me was the way it affected my attitude. I felt generally in a better mood. Which was great when I was stuck in traffic.
The only thing that I missed was sharing it others. Because any true cebador can tell you, mate is to be shared. And unfortunately, my “bong” just wasn’t appealing to those around me.
So, I picked up and left. No….not just because I wanted to drink Yerba Mate with other people. But because I had been working day and night to save up for my dream trip to South America. I first touched down in Uruguay, the undeniable Mecca of Yerba Mate drinking. Coincidence? I think not.
Yerba Mate is an “ella”
Sometimes I feel jealous of her. She’s beautiful, smooth, bronzed, and way more popular than I am. But, in the end, I stay with her because I’m nothing without her.
I haven’t named her, my mate, but I always felt like she was an “ella.”
Disclaimer: I am about to plug my own project.
If you’re interested in travel in Latin America and/or Yerba Mate, I invite you to visit an Instagram Account called MatePorAmerica.
It is a collection of photos of people and places that my lover-mate and I have been and met through our travels.
Why do I care so much about Yerba Mate?
Well, beyond having experienced its benefits first hand, I’ve also come to realize its ability to bring people together and create conversation.
When I backpacked through South America, the fact that I, a gringo from the US, always carried a mate and thermos became a great way to start conversation and make friends. In many ways, it made my experience there more special than I could have imagined.
Now, I work as a tour leader in Central America. I am blessed to travel to many places and meet people from many parts of the world. It was once I started this job that I came to realize that it was my duty to share this drink, that is so important to me and millions of others. Since Yerba Mate is not popular at all in Central America, it is a great way to not only meet people, but also help them learn about this drink and their neighbors to South. That is, of course, after explaining to them that it’s not marijuana.
Sharing mate with the people on our tours is a great way to put everyone in a good mood, too, and for them to get to know each other while sharing something as intimate as each other’s’ saliva. Everyone drinks from the same bombilla when sharing mate, if you were asking yourself.
To date, my mate, now turned Instagram model, has travelled the length of the Americas and she has no plans of stopping soon. If you meet her, please treat her well.