My love-hate relationship with Yerba Mate
I think my story starts in a similar way to anyone who now drinks mate but lives outside of a South American country, which is that before ever drinking mate, I had no idea what it was or even existed. I honestly doubt I would have even tried it if someone offered it to me before I spent a few years in Chile.
After being in Chile for about a month and a half, I went over to a kind Chilean family’s –– the Guajardo’s –– home to share a small meal with them and my friends John, Connor, and Corbin who initially introduced me to the family. While we laughed at my poor attempts to speak Spanish, I was offered some mate. I looked at the small bowl-like structure wrapped in leather and full off what looked like, dirt, sticks, and leaves. Trying to be polite, I attempted to decline, but my friend John politely coaxed me into trying it. To be blunt, it was awful! It tasted just as it looked, which was like some hot, watery dirt placed into an odd cup!
Even though I thought it was awful-tasting, I also really wanted to become immersed in the culture of Chile, in order to help me learn the language better and not be viewed as just another American foreigner. With that motive in mind, I decided that although my first taste of it was foul, I’d at least give Yerba Mate another opportunity. It wasn’t until my fifth time trying mate that I was no longer repulsed by the taste. Granted, it took adding lemon, actual mint leaves and some sugar to counteract the strong bitter taste that it seemed to have. But, you have to do what you have to do. And finally, I could drink it in a setting and not hate it. From then on, I slowly became a fan of mate, and enjoyed our visits back to the Guajardo’s home to discuss religion, Chile and stories we all had. In addition to those topics, they would also have some mate to share during our discussion, which became something I always looked forward to. After about three months, my same friend, John, who had coaxed me into trying mate, gave me his mate cup and straw as a gift in hopes of bolstering within me the same love for mate that he obtained during his time in Chile.
The gringo who likes Yerba Mate
After a few months, I would continually move around from one area to the next, meeting tons of new people, discussing religious beliefs, giving service, and running from dogs in the streets. Through it all, I would become great friends with many people of different nationalities. While moving to these new areas, I would also grow my love for mate and find more people who also enjoyed it, especially including my Argentine and Uruguayan friends. I found tons of new yerba brands and flavors. I even took a few trips to a certain spot in the capital to grow my personal collection of mate. At one point, I had over 20 different mates (cups). The collecting became a type of hobby, but drinking mate was more of a passion.
Through my experiences with meeting so many new people, drinking mate was always something that I could use as a conversation starter and something that many could relate to. Some would laugh or be appalled that this so called “gringo” not only knew what mate was, but also liked it! At times, some suspected I was Argentine because of my accent and passion for mate, but I assured them I was American; more than just a drink, it seemed to be something that brought people together.
I loved talking around a table with a family, expressing our purpose for being there in their homes, and conversing with one another. It was so unique to me that everyone shared mate. It’s not like your favorite drink in the States where you keep it to yourself to enjoy, but instead enjoyment comes from sharing it with others. My favorite part of the experience was sitting and passing the mate to the person with the pitcher of hot water who would fill it and pass it back. I would then slowly drink until it was empty before handing it back to them, and they would refill it before passing it to the next person. This process would continue until everyone who wanted mate had received some, then the person pouring the water would pass the pitcher to the next person and they would take over the responsibility of refilling and passing the cup. I always enjoyed this and felt it made for a bonding moment with whoever was there in the circle. I just really enjoyed the aspect that everyone could enjoy and share this exquisite drink.
While there, I also used mate as means to get people off other drinks and turn to this safer, natural alternative. I remember one special lady, Julia, who would always drink coffee every morning and lots of wine. Once John and I introduced her to mate, we encouraged her to make the switch. And, she loved it! She would invite us over and show us her jars of yerba that she bought, and tell us about how she felt better with making the switch.
Passing on the journey of Yerba Mate
When the time came to leave Chile, I left with so many great moments and experiences, but I also wanted to make sure I left the same way I came in. My final week, I made sure to give a special mate to my new friend Devon, who had only been in Chile for a couple months. I wanted to make sure he had the same opportunity to take the mate journey as John had given me all those months before.
Now, close to two years later, I’m still happily drinking mate and sharing it with anyone that wants to try it.
Though, for me, the added bonus of drinking mate is that it also brings me back a piece of that sweet country with every sip I take. ¡Viva Chile!
Enjoy your mate journey!