Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Circle of Friends

Photo by Jorge Alfonso
When the topic of misadventures came up, I slapped my forehead, rolled my eyes, and muttered to the muse sitting on my desk, “I’m supposed to write a blog post, not a whole book!” Oh, the stories I could tell (most probably aren’t fit for public consumption). However, one of my favorite escapades is my first experience with yerba mate, a popular drink in the southern half of South America.

At the base camp of Aconcagua, South America’s highest mountain, a band of Argentine park rangers invited me to a yerba mate session. Being the girly swot that I am, I’d read up about this herbal drink and had some reservations. In those days, many travel books, written by people who may or may not have set foot in a particular country, warned travelers about the dangers of this concoction of leaves. “It’s a drug! You’ll get high! You’ll get addicted!” my battered guide book told me.

Not one to take someone else’s word as gospel, I took a deep breath and accepted the invitation with a hesitant smile. I joined the circle of Argentines casually draped across fold-up chairs and waited patiently for the ritual to begin. The person in charge of preparing the drink for the group is a cebador. And depending on where the person comes from, the drink will be bitter or sugar laden. Luckily, my companions on this day were of the sweet mate school.

The cebador arranged the dried, ground leaves in a gourd, sometimes known as a guampa. A bombilla (silver straw) is inserted into the gourd, which is filled once with cool water, then needs time to absorb completely. This protects the herbs from being scalded and won’t breakdown the mate’s nutrients. If desired, the cebador adds sugar then pours hot water, not boiling, into the gourd until it almost reaches the top. Now, it’s ready to drink but the thirsty hordes need to patiently wait their turn.

When the cebador helped himself to the first mate, I nearly fell off my rickety chair. Isn’t that rude? The young guy sitting beside me dug his elbow into my ribs and said (as if reading my mind), “The cebador takes the first drink to make sure the yerba mate isn’t too hot or cold. We call the first drink mate del zonzomate of the fool.” Ahhh. That made sense.

Our trusty cebador slurped his way to the bottom of the gourd, leaving a soggy concoction of leaves at the bottom. Without removing the yerba mate, he added sugar and hot water, and passed it to the guy on his right. There were no pleases or thank you’s. When he took too long, everyone shouted, “No es un microfono!” (It isn’t a microphone). With a devious smile he finished and passed it back to the cebador. The mate continued like this around the circle until it was my turn.

The hot metal straw burned my lips, but the liquid slid down my throat in a lovely symphony of sweet herbs. From the first sip, I was hooked (but not addicted!). I drank it all the way to the bottom, happily slurping. In my best Spanish, I said “gracias” and handed the empty gourd back. I awaited my next turn eagerly, and when it came time, the drink was passed in front of me and given to the person on my right.

Yerba Mate tree by Illosuna
Dumbfounded, I ran over what I’d said before. Gracias. Thank you. Not, “Man, that stuff looks disgusting and I can’t believe the communal germs that are all over that thing.” A tad confused, I asked my offsider what I’d done. He grinned from ear to ear, “When you hand the drink back and say thank you,” he explained, “it means you are finished and do not want any more for this session.”


I pleaded ignorance and was luckily let back into the precious mate circle. Phew!

Yerba mate is popular in social settings, especially with family and friends. This was one of my first experiences in South America and, for me, it cemented in my mind exactly how friendly these people are. I’d been invited by complete strangers into an intimate gathering, and they didn’t care I’d messed up. Because I’d tried to understand their tradition and made an effort, it was enough to earn my place back into their social circle. This was the first time I’d fully participated in the traditions of another culture and was accepted. I’ll never forget it. And from that day on, my Argentine friends always invited me back.

And for the record, I didn’t get addicted. The yerba mate has a similar stimulant to coffee or tea. And the only high I got was from being at 6,970 meters (nearly 23,000 feet).


  1. Glad you enjoyed the experience and the mate! ('Maté' = 'I killed.' Though it's sometimes written with an accent in English to clarify the e is pronounced, if you have it in italics, indicating it's a Spanish term, it shouldn't have an accent.)

    In high school, they taught us that at the table, "'Gracias' es decir 'no, gracias.'" ("Thank you" = "No, thank you.") Very confusing for anglos! (If we enjoyed it, we were supposed to compliment the food.)

  2. I love my traveling misadventures...most anyway. This one not only opens my eyes to a place I have not been but is entertaining in your innocent, Wait! I wanted more! It is for posts like this that I follow this blog. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for stopping by Jordan! Learning a new language can have some challenges, huh? I had learnt German at school so unfortunately that didn't help me much the first time I went to South America. But I was fortunate enough to meet a bunch of lovely Argentines who took me under their wings and guided me through the process of learning their language and culture. I'll never forget their generosity and friendship.

  4. Rebecca, thank you so much for your lovely words! I've enjoyed most of my traveling misadventures, too but there are some I find are much more enjoyable after the moment has passed!

  5. You've had the most fascinating travel adventures, Alli! But this post reminds me of my unfortunate overindulgence in Margaritas the first time I went to Puerto Vallarta - it wasn't my fault - they kept refilling my glass - lol!

  6. Alli, I regret never having traveled with you even more now. Love this story, and like Rebecca, more so because I'd never heard of yerba mate before.

  7. Thanks, Kathy! It sounds like you had a very interesting (perhaps painful!) misadventure in Mexico. And it would be rude to say no to a refill, right? :-)

    Thanks, Supriya! Who knows, maybe one day we'll get the chance to travel together and create our own misadventures!

  8. I think the Argentines are like us Aussies and Vegemite .... the first time they gave me Mate they put no sugar in it and LAUGHED so hard when l screwed up my face and tried to look like l enjoyed it LOL... KRIS

  9. Kris, that is funny! I think you're right, sometimes we use the food/drink we have grown up with to torture others (in a nice way!). It's fun watching the reaction of others whose tastebuds are not accustomed to certain "delicacies". Vegemite is a classic example!

  10. Alli, this party looks like so much fun, I don't think I'd care what the mate tasted like. Take me along next time, OK?

  11. Sure, why not Heidi? The more the merrier, right?

  12. Oh, I gotta travel to Argentina now, just to drink yerba mate! For a caffeine addict like me, finding another stimulant is a blessing :) BTW - one of the best drinks of my life was a Bedouin tea -- I had in a goat tent with a bunch of people I couldn't converse with - but they made it with sage, mint and very black tea, and cooked in a pot buried in fire pit in the ground. I tried the recipe in a kettle - close, but ain't the same thing!

  13. Wow, Lina, that Bedouin tea sounds yummy! I'm sure the atmosphere helped the taste, too, huh? I LOVE yerba mate. I'm sure you'll enjoy it, too!