The Journey of Yerba Mate Part 1: A Hot Sip of Peace in the Beast
The musky smell of the city never goes away. When I first arrived almost a year earlier, the smell was foreign to my senses and was as ever present as the wail of police and fire truck sirens that reverberate and hang over the city like fog that gets stuck trying to climb over a mountain top. The smell. The sound. They never drift away. Combined, they remind you constantly that the city is alive and the musk and sirens act as the constant heartbeat of the living beast. I stopped on this thought for a moment and listened to the faint wail of the beast. I pressed my lips to the gold mouth piece of my Alpaca bombilla and took a sip. The familiar gurgling, slurping sound vibrated from the bottom of the gourd. The sound snapped me back to the moment and returned me to my task at hand of refilling the gourd with foaming hot water and passing it to my comrades.
Drinking a hot gourd of mate had become nearly a daily ritual since I first purchased my own Brazilian gourd a few months earlier. But this evening was a special occasion. In fact, admittedly, we had slightly bent the rules from our leadership for this final night as comrades in our small, third-story apartment. We were not supposed to allow non-missionaries into our apartment. However, this night, we had invited our friend and brother David to join us on the balcony to drink mate one last time before Elder Hill moved across town the next morning. This move wasn’t like the other moves that happened every six to twelve weeks. Elder Hill had been my senior and mentor for the last twelve weeks. David wasn’t a missionary with us but instead was an eager and loyal 17-year-old who preferred joining us in our missionary work and teachings instead of being in school. It probably wasn’t the best habit for him to leave school early to go teach with us, but it certainly created a bond that will never be broken through the eternities.
Not only did we all work together in the mission field, but we also had been dealt one bad hand after another over the past months. Ranging from bike accidents and nights in the hospital to broken hearts and loss of family and loved ones, we marched through it all together, carrying whoever needed it on any given day. Through all this chaos and struggle, we also had discovered a new source of peace to add to the daily spiritual dedication; we had discovered Yerba Mate.
The City that Breathes
To this day, people give me the same scrunched, confused look when I tell them that I started drinking Yerba Mate as a young missionary in Washington D.C., the capital of the United States. What people don’t understand is that, even though Washington D.C. is not a foreign country, it was still a foreign world from what I had known and how most view the nation’s capital city.
Most think of the Greek style, white, marble monuments that surround the National Mall at the center of the city. Or they think of the white house and political buildings on Capitol Hill. They may even think of the prestigious Georgetown University. But I came to know the real city. I came to feel the heartbeat of the city. My heart came to beat as a single heart with the moldy musk smell and the endless sirens of the inner city; of the real city.
In the vast corners of the city, to the forgotten ones, live some of the most amazing people this world has to offer, and they have arrived from every nook of our vast world. Here, cultures clash and mesh together. The streets and neighborhoods are rich with the flowing lifeblood of ever-changing culture and language. In the midst of it all, there is the ugly sneer of violence in every neighborhood and street. Gangs and drugs flood the night and, at times, rears its ugly head in broad daylight to take life and add to the endless flowered memorials wrapped around a street post, tree or parking meter. These harrowing memorials remind all who pass by of the lives lost to the dark places of the city’s soul. But in these streets is where I found a hot sip of peace.
First Impressions, the Base of All Relations
The area we were driving in was unfamiliar to me. At that point, I had spent most of my time in the Southeastern side of the city. We had been called to a meeting in this new area and while there, my companion decided he wanted to visit some friends close by who he had not seen in months.
We pulled up to the house and parked. We walked through the chest high chain link gate to the front door. My companion knocked. We heard footsteps coming and the door opened. As soon as the woman saw us, she smiled and greeted us in Spanish and immediately invited us in. I had never met her before but instantly recognized her to have a rare accent for the area. She was from the southern edge of South America, Uruguay. The accent was riddled with the distinctive “shhh” intonation that is characteristic to the southern regions of the continent. She spoke with a soothing flow to her sentences that carried a light touch of a song as her voice rose and dropped. It was a pleasant change for me, as I was so used to the sharp accents from central American countries that were so common to the areas in and around Washington D.C.
She invited us to sit on the couch and went into the kitchen. She returned carrying a strange, wood-looking, cup with some sort of silver straw emerging. I had never seen such a drink. I watched her push back the herbs in the cup, creating an opening in the one side where she proceeded to pour steaming hot water from a large thermos on the table. The water filled up to the rim but never soaked the mound on the opposite end that she had pushed back. The water seemed to bubble and foam at the surface with a frothy green hue. I was intrigued. I realized that I was not listening to the conversation due to my fixation on the strange, yet enticing drink.
She paused from her conversation with my companion and took a deep drink from the silver straw. I heard a faint slurping noise that marked the cup was empty. From there, she immediately went to pushing the mound of herbs back again and filled the empty side of the cup once more. This time she passed it to my companion who took it without breaking from what he was saying. I knew we were short on time and had to be leaving soon.
The woman then got up to return to the kitchen and my companion turned his focus to the drink in his hand, taking a light sip. Now that we were alone, I asked him what it was. “Yerba mate, es una bebida tradicional de Uruguay. Siempre están tomándolo acá en la casa.” Translation: Yerba mate, it’s a traditional drink in Uruguay. They are always drinking it here in the house.
I then asked if I could have a sip, confused as to why he had not offered me one and was keeping it all to himself. He replied telling me that it is against tradition to share a cup unless offered. At that moment, the woman walked back in and my companion finished off the cup with the same distinct slurping sound marking it as empty. He told the woman that we had to be leaving to make our next meeting. She thanked us for coming by and we left. The drive back to our area of work had my mind consumed with the intriguing drink. It was foreign and odd, yet something about it was calling me. Yerba mate. I wouldn’t forget that drink, though I would not see it again for another two months. But the next time, would be the beginning of the pleasant tradition of peace that would become a staple of my life and identity for the years to come.