After spending 4 months studying in the beautiful city of Buenos Aires, I was on my 26 hour flight back to Mumbai and, through all the distraction-free movies and palatable food, the one thought that was constantly on my mind was: Will I be detained upon landing? I was carrying three kilograms of loose leaves that very much resembled marijuana. That, combined with an overgrown beard was sure to get me into trouble.
Mate (pronounced “maa-tay”, unless you’re calling out to your Australian friend) is a traditional hot drink made from dried yerba leaves that tastes like a stronger and more caffeinated version of tea. You would not be able to step foot in the country without seeing someone sipping on Mate, a quintessentially Argentine drink in every sense.
While on a weekend trip to Villa Gesell, a small beach town outside Buenos Aires, I met a man who worked in one of the local restaurants and permanently lived in the hostel I was staying at. As I introduced myself, and even before I could sit on the grass next to him, he uttered one of the most welcoming phrases: “Querés Mate?”, which means “Do you want mate?” (Note to anyone learning Spanish: Ignore the seemingly incorrect but actually perfectly correct conjugation of “Querer” here, Argentines always like to do things differently). I gracefully accepted his offer, not only because I actually wanted to drink mate but also because it can be considered rude to refuse the offer – and I didn’t want anybody spitting in my food. As I took the simple wooden cup, I was careful not to touch the straw or bombilla with my hands and risk my new friend getting mad at me. You never want to mess up the carefully prepared arrangement of yerba leaves in the cup. While it might seem that a cup of mate is just tea leaves and hot water, preparation is actually a lot more complicated than that.
You have to make sure that the yerba is strategically arranged at an angle to the base of the cup. You do this so that you don’t end up wetting all the yerba at once and can therefore enjoy the taste for longer. You then want to pour some cool water into the cup first to protect the yerba from getting scalded by the hot water. After that, you insert the bombilla in a way that lets the end reach the deepest layer of the yerba. Once you have completed this, and a few other steps that I have skipped so that people don’t stop reading this post, you are ready to pour hot water into the mate. Enjoy the drink and try not to burn your tongue – as I have done more times than I care to admit.
Anyway, after 6-8 sips, ensuring that the respectful slurping sound indicating an empty cup was audible, I returned the mate to the servidor (server), being careful not to thank him. No, I am not an evil person. This is because a “gracias” would indicate that I am done with the drink and don’t want to be served anymore. Since I, obviously, was still craving some more, a simple “que rico” (literally translating to “how rich”) sufficed. When in a group of people, you always pass the mate back to the servidor once you are done, who then refills the mate and passes it around. Just like when you open a box of Icebreakers, the more people you are with, the less you get.
Mate is an important part of social gatherings, when alcohol isn’t involved that is. You can often see a group of friends sitting in a circle in the park and enjoying mate, maybe discussing the high rate of inflation, their disdain for the government, or how much they partied the previous night. I’ve seen people drinking mate while walking to work, driving their kids to school, and even skateboarding on a summer evening. I was pretty much addicted to mate after my first few weeks in Buenos Aires. More than the taste, I love mate because of what it represented about Argentine culture. Mate is something people unite around. It is a socio-economic lever as almost everyone likes mate and has the ability to enjoy it. Most importantly, the culture of drinking mate is grounded on sharing and meeting new people, which is always a traveler’s dream.
Since I was leaving Buenos Aires after four months of living there, with no idea of when I would return, I knew I had to take a piece of the culture back home and there could be nothing more perfect than this cup of over-caffeinated tea – and I would probably have been okay getting detained for that.