A few missionaries and myself spending time with some of our South American friends

The Journey of Yerba Mate Part 2: “Quieres un Matecito?”

If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, head here to start the story.

“The house is just down this street,”Hill told me as we turned down a sidestreet from the main road.  

Hill slowed down in front of a house on our right. I recognized it. I was new to the area, but knew the house to be where I witnessed the traditional Uruguayan drink that I had seen on my last visit. I had not thought much of the experience from almost three months earlier. My companion had called it Yerba Mate. I immediately began to wonder if this would be the evening I would be able to try it for myself.  

Hill and I stepped out of our car, walked to the door and knocked. It swung open, and in front of us stood a man with a huge, genuine grin on his face. Right away, I took him to be the husband of the kind woman who was home when I stopped by a few short months ago. He was fair-skinned, which I was still getting used to when meeting certain Latinos. He had long dark hair pulled behind his ears. It fell down his neck in a loose ponytail and then onto his upper back in an organized mess of dark ringlets. I never thought that long hair, especially in a ponytail, looked particularly good on men unless it was complemented with some arrangement of facial hair. However, maybe for the first time I could think of, I was faced with a man who made it look fitting. The man excitedly greeted us with a shout: “ AMIGOS!” He embraced Hill with a strong hug. Then he turned to me and yanked me in for a similar embrace.  

“Mucho gusto, amigo!  Soy Edgardo!”

I returned the greeting in surprise at his friendliness. He told us to come in and make ourselves comfortable on the couch. Hill and I plopped down and took in the ambience. A voice came from the kitchen, which I recognized it to be from the woman I met on my previous visit who was drinking the Mate.  She called to us with a friendly greeting from the kitchen, and assured us she would be right in to join us.

Just then, a thunder of feet emanated from up the stairs. Down roared three kids, each on the heels of the other. Two boys and a young girl boomed into the room. Each had the same look, the slender face and dark eyes of their father. They radiated the same enthusiasm. We greeted each of them, one by one, and they went back to ripping around the house as young children do.  Edgardo sat down on a chair across from us with a smile. He asked me about myself, where I was from and how long I had been a missionary. The accent took me a minute to get used to. I didn’t often need to concentrate with much effort to what was being said, but with this thick accent, my Spanish skills were being put to work.

Taking in the beautiful view of the Washington Monument in Washington D.C.
Taking in the beautiful view of the Washington Monument in Washington D.C.

Just then, the woman walked into the room from the kitchen. And there it was. In one hand she held onto the handle of a large thermos and in the other hand was that strange drink full of loose herbs that I had seen on my previous visit. She pulled up a chair next to her husband and set the thermos on the table.  She had already filled the gourd for herself and sat listening while slowly sipping from the metal straw that protruded from the heaping mountain of yerba. I kept an eye on the process as we continued to converse and watched as she finished drinking the gourd. I heard the distinct sound of air mixed with remnants of liquid whistle through the bottom of the straw.

At that point, she gripped the metal straw with her hand as one would grip a pry bar and she carefully, yet assertively, pushed the yerba back in a push and pry motion. I watched as she created an empty opening, where the straw sat in the gourd, while on the opposing side stood a mountain of seemingly dry yerba. I watched as she picked up the thermos and poured water into the opening that she had, moments earlier, dug out. The steam rose from the opening as the water level rose within. She stopped pouring when the water had nearly reached the metal rim of the leather wrapped gourd but was careful not to get the dry mountain of yerba wet. At that point, she turned to my companion and myself. I felt excitement fill my chest as I saw her turn the straw towards me and hold the gourd out.  

“Quieres un matecito?” she amicably asked.  

I didn’t know what to expect of the flavor, or even the temperature at that, but something inside me was too intrigued to second guess the gracious offer.  

“Si, hermana!” I replied enthusiastically.

A delicious gourd of yerba mate featuring a "mountain" of mate
A delicious gourd of yerba mate featuring a “mountain” of mate

I took the gourd from her and brought it close. For the first time I was able to really look at what I was about to drink. The yerba was pushed back, rising as a mountain on the opposing side of the straw. The yerba was finely cut and looked pure. The size of the yerba was consistent without any extra sticks or differing leaves. There was a frothy green hue to the water that was poured into the gourd. I watched as bubbles slowly frothed to the surface, forming a layer of earthy foam. My focus was drawn into the gourd, as if the inside of the gourd had risen to be a towering mountain of soft green leaves above me. The bits of yerba fell into the water in seemingly slow motion, like the scene of ice chunks calving off a glacier that loomed over the still water of an arctic bay. Ground pieces of yerba floated at the surface, mixing in with the thick, frothy bubbles like scattered chunks of ice at the base of a glacier. The steam rose up from the surface of the water and froth, like hot pot pools in the dead of winter in the high mountains of Yellowstone National Park, where I frequently visited as a child.

My mind and eyes were then lifted as I rose above the great mountain of yerba and my focus turned to the silver straw that protruded from the opening of the gourd. It was clearly worn and had a slight curve before the mouthpiece. The mouthpiece of the straw was gold but had a faded, weathered look. It was obvious that this, once shiny and glimmering piece of metal, had been used on a regular basis for many years. I liked the weathered look. You always know when a tool has been put to good use by the fade of the shine. This tool had clearly been put to good use and showed no sign of retirement.  

A few missionaries and myself spending time with some of our South American friends
A few missionaries and myself spending time with some of our South American friends

I had not received any instruction but that I was required to drink the whole gourd before passing it back.  I decided I did not want to take too much time inspecting the drink, for fear of being regarded as rude or apprehensive. So, I put my lips to the gold mouthpiece of the straw and took a short sip. I felt the mouthpiece heat up slightly on my lips just before the steaming hot liquid hit my tongue. I had grossly underestimated how hot the water was going to be and maybe had taken in a bit too much of it at once.  I drew it back from my lips from the hot sting on my tongue. The sting lasted only a split second before my mouth filled with the deep bitter flavor of the drink itself. I was not accustomed to bitter drinks. Like most North Americans my age, I favored sweet sensations of juices or the occasional soda. This was a contrasting flavor, indeed. The bitterness seemed to fill every corner of my mouth. I consciously masked the reaction I felt with a casual look on my face. As if I had partaken of this bitter, hot mate a hundred times before. I swallowed and allowed the mate to cascade down my throat. I felt my chest heat up as it passed and settled with a warm sensation in my stomach. I looked down and could tell no noticeable difference in the level of the mate water sitting at the base of the great mountain.  

“Well,” I thought, “I can finish this. I don’t have much of a choice.”

I sat and joined the conversation while slowly working at the mate in my hand. Sip by sip, the water level dropped creating an empty pit at the base of the great mountain. I finally heard the distinct sound marking that the gourd was empty. I handed the gourd back with a smile. The smile was genuine, though. I did not particularly enjoy the taste of the mate, I was not accustomed to the deep bitterness that the water held.  However, I was still fascinated. There was something intangible that I could not pinpoint about the process I just participated in. There seemed to be an unspoken reverence to the ritual. As if the mate and the ritual had a long story that carried through history without a set beginning. It held the sensation of holding an old book. An ancient, worn book that had been loved and held its place in history, not just as a story but as history itself. I was captivated. I decided in that moment that I wanted to know more and would continue drinking it when available.   

We spent the rest of the evening discussing family, God and soccer. All while, the dark, metal rimmed gourd of mate continued its rotation through the group and the family. We laughed and talked as old friends around a fire. The mate, as if self-existing, rotated around the center of the room, stopping for a few short minutes on each of us before bringing the hot, liquid camaraderie to the next person. It almost felt as though the mate itself carried an energy of friendship with every pass on to the next person.