The Foreigner’s Mate
If you’ve experienced Mate Culture as a foreigner, or you’re a Mate Person living as a foreigner in an environment in which this drink is atypical, you know that traveling to a distant place or adjusting to a new society can be tricky. Whether we like it or not, we all carry an invisible baggage of traditions which are hard to let go. Trying new things sounds very exciting, but we all inherently have a resistance towards acquiring new customs and leaving the old ones behind; after all, we’re part of where we come from.
I was born and raised in Argentina, though my parents came from Uruguay, and like so many people in these countries at the south of South America, I grew up with mate; but even this habit varies from place to place. My dad actually never drank it, but my mom is very matera and she’d have it Uruguayan style: bitter and strong, preferably with yerba which had no stems, water poured from a thermos, very hot, and always served in a gourd. Naturally I was surrounded by fellow Argentinians who would take it in different ways: in a metal or wooden cup, poured from the kettle —which means, very hot at first, and quickly getting colder!—yerba with stems, and they might also serve it with sugar, sweetener, honey, even herbs. I’m a mate fan so I would accept any mate anyone offers and drink it gladly, but when I come back home, I still make it with yerba from Uruguay in the style of el paisito.
The great compañero
When I was 25 years old, I moved to Los Angeles, California, where I lived for over fifteen years. Apart from the culture shock and learning the language, my most important concern before traveling was “How am I going to get mate over there?!” Even though products derivative of yerba mate are getting to be well known around the globe, moving to a place where they don’t have this tradition can make everyday life complicated. I know many Mate People who have moved abroad and, particularly those not living in a large city, have to go through the pain of ordering it online and waiting for a long time to receive it, or even asking relatives or friends visiting to bring you a few kilos of yerba, all of which means planning way ahead because it’s not likely a neighbor will be able to give you some if you run out.
I work full time in my own studio, and not having mate around can be catastrophic. Starting the day without it is like trying to start a car without gas: I simply would not function. To some people it can be tough having too much mate because of stomach problems, or others can’t have it too late in the day; it is, after all, a stimulant and it can be bad for someone with trouble sleeping. Me, I can have it from the moment I get up until I go to sleep; with food, by itself, in the cold winter or when the weather is super hot. It’s a good way to keep energy levels high and anxiety levels down. But regardless of all that can be said about its health benefits – hydration being one of the most important—the truth is for those of us who grew up with this custom, we just drink it for the sake of sharing when we’re with others, and because mate can be a great compañero when we’re alone.
New friends, different places
I was lucky enough that my first house in LA was only three blocks away from an Argentine bakery which not only was a good provider of our traditional facturas, but also sold our typical products, so my yerba dealer was really close. Later on, I started selling my works through Cactus Gallery, owned by the daughter of Argentinians, who back then not only sold art but also imported crafts from my country, including very ornate mates and bombillas. Eventually, when it was time to get a replacement, I bought quite a few from her not just for myself but also to give as gifts.
Naturally, as I made new friends from different places I would want them to try my exotic drink and even take on the daily ritual of this beverage. Some of the most hilarious moments I had in LA were when I was having mate. Whether in the car, at the park or on my porch, people often stopped to ask me what I was smoking. “That’s a huge pipe!” I remember hearing once. Offering mate to someone who has no idea what it is can be funny as hell. Apart from imparting our strict set of rules –never touch the straw, don’t dare to stir, drink it until the end—it’s entertaining to observe people’s reactions when they try it for the first time. Once at a party, a few fellow countrymen and myself offered it to someone from Mexico, and after a while he was convinced he was getting super high and seeing strange things. Of course, we all encouraged his psychedelic experience. To this day, I’m still not sure who was fooling whom.
People foreign to mate can get a bit disgusted with the fact that we all drink from the same straw, and I tend to say that we who are from Mate Country don’t get any more sick than people from other places, and who knows, maybe the fact that we share this habit somehow improves our immune system. In the same way that thanks to my Mexican friends I can’t have avocados anymore without making guacamole, I’m glad to say I have international friends from Asia, North America, and Europe, who now keep a mate-set at home. I guess it all comes down to being able to perceive something that’s so innate to us through another person’s eyes, and make it inviting to those who might be hesitant to try it. And perhaps this can be a mind opener, because it could help us see the customs and traditions of strange peoples from exotic places as a more natural thing.
Patricia Krebs –Buenos Aires, 2018