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Drinking 'mate'

I was at Cottesloe beach with a friend once and she was telling me how she spotted people from her own country (she was not from Australia). Her technique consisted in observing their footwear. Apparently, if they were wearing Birkenstocks with socks, they were from her country.

By sheer luck, I saw a small group of people sitting on the sand. They had a thermos flask and a container approximately the size of a mug but with a more round shape, with a drinking straw in it. I discretely pointed at them and told my friend, “Those are either from Argentina or Uruguay”. My friend looked at their feet, then at me. No, they were not all wearing Topper shoes - or if they were, I did not notice. They were, nevertheless, drinking mate, a typical South American drink. Carrying the flask kind of gave their origin away. It was still a guess, but not such a wild one.

I arrived in Australia in the beginning of 2003. At the time, I did not know I would still be living here 16 years later but that is just the way life panned out. Looking back, I feel I have changed quite a bit but somehow and ironically, I feel more in touch with my roots these days than back then. Perhaps it was due to the excitement of being in a new land and continent, emerged in a completely different culture. As time went by, I became more and more adjusted to the new environment, but also more aware of the many intricacies of my identity as a Latin American migrant.

One of the things I first missed was the ‘mate’, an infused drink typical of South America. In Argentina, according to a national newspaper, more ‘mate’ is consumed per person than water (La Nación Online, 29/11/16). Luckily, it is supposed to be quite healthy.

I was born and raised in Brazil but lived in Argentina for many years. I feel strongly connected to both countries. Buenos Aires was where I learned to drink and share the mate. Part of the pleasure is actually in the sharing. In fact, it is the whole ritual: preparing, drinking, then sharing.

Traditionally, mate is served in a hollowed gourd. To prepare the mate, the gourd is first filled with the yerba, (the finely chopped and ground dried leaves used to make the mate) and (hot) water. A drinking straw that has a small strainer at one end is inserted into the gourd, and that is how it is drunk. One person takes the mate and when the liquid is finished, more water is added and then a second person may enjoy the drink. This can keep happening a number of times, depending on how many people are present and willing to have mate. When necessary, the gourd will be emptied, cleaned, and new yerba will be used so that more mate is made. The gourd will last years and years and can often be passed on through more than one generation. I am in possession of one that belonged to a man whose daughter is today 90 years old. True story!

After I moved to Australia, I did not have mate for many years, until I was given some yerba by someone who had found it for sale in a shop. It is actually easy to find it here in Perth these days, if you know where to go. The difference is that in Argentina, you can find yerba in almost every corner. Any ‘kiosko’, the equivalent of what in Australia we refer to as a ‘deli’, will stock yerba, among other goods.

Anyway. The fact is that I have this very interesting friend who is heavily into drinking tea. Often when I’d visit her, she would give me at least 10 choices to choose from her tea collection. When she visited me, I probably had three or four. At times I could not chose so she’d say that she’d give me a ‘surprise tea’. Then one day when she came to visit me, I had the idea of introducing her to the mate drink. At the time, I had the special straw/strainer but not the gourd. I improvised with a large mug. When my friend saw the quantity of yerba I put into the mug, she became rather suspicious. “This is like ten times as much as what I would use if I was making a tea for one person”, she exclaims, trying to make a point. She feared the drink I was about to give her would be too powerful and that it may cause some ‘side effects’ of some sort. I reassured her that it was safe but she was still reluctant. It was only after I took the first sip that she agreed to try. Ironically, that is partly how we do it in South America: we share. How befitting that I had the first sip. She then proceeded to drink and really liked it.

I gave her a mate straw for her birthday a few months later, along with some yerba. I’m not sure how often she’s had it afterwards but she remained enthusiastic for a few months and decided to learn to speak Spanish. As for me, I mostly have mate on my own and occasionally share it with my daughter or a friend. I need a new gourd, as my old one has started to leak. I have been putting it off - acquiring a new gourd - for a bit and now I realise I’ve become attached to the old one. Years of handling it, holding, sharing it… but if I want to keep drinking mate, I will have to develop a new relationship with a new one. The sooner I do it, the more likely I will be of it seeing me through my 90th…

By the way, I have been told it is often common for people in Chile to carry their flasks and share mate in public places. In fact I heard it’s been observed in other parts of the world too, like Australia. Caracoles!

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