The Art of Yerba Mate

Montevideo Travel Blog

 › entry 5 of 38 › view all entries

By 8pm on Saturday night my bags were packed and, not wanting to be out late before my early morning departure to Uruguay, I decided that I would spend a quiet evening reading my book on the couches in the lobby. All of the staff who work at the hostel are extremely nice but the two guys who work the evening shift are by far my favourites. They always make an effort to ask about your day and crack jokes when you walk by. That evening they were bored. Just as I sat on the couches, one of them had the inspired idea to crank up the volume of Queen´s Bohemian Rhapsody and sing and dance along Wayne´s World style. They were so hilarious that I was forced to put down my book and join in. During the song they had to buzz people in the front door and even sign someone into the hostel but they did not stop singing, they just multi-tasked. By the time the song was over we had a sizable audience which soon dispersed and I went back to my book. The guys came over, took my book, and told me that we were going to sing some more. I ended up sitting at the front desk with them until midnight when their shift ended. They played me all their favourite South American music, told me the best places to go in Argentina, discussed the finer points of Spanish pronunciation (Apparently, the country Uruguay is pronunced oo-ru-way not yer-a-gway, which sounds too much like you are gay. This was accompanied by a small skit to emphasize the point), showed me how to tango, and most importantly revealed to me the secrets of Yerba Mate the national obsession. Everywhere you go in Argentina and Uruguay you see people carrying a thermos and a strange round cup with a metal straw. The cup is actually a gourd and one end of the straw is a tea strainer. Mate is not sold in cafes and it is often difficult for foreigners to get a taste without buying their own gourd, "healing it" (preparing it to be used) and stewing it themselves. When my new friends learned that I had not yet tried mate they insisted that they would introduce me to its wonders. Mate, like coffee here, is a social drink. It is filled with small rituals and you don´t drink much but you drink it slowly and with friends. Everybody drinks from the same gourd which is continually refilled with hot water from the thermos and passed around. One of the guys was studying literature at the university in Buenos Aires and after their shift I sat with their friends in the hostel bar and discussed books, authors, television, movies, and futbol. The dialogue of half Spanish half English was the perfect way for me to pick up some vocabulary. I went to bed at 4am when the group decided that it was finally late enough to go to a dance club and I finally managed to convince them that since I had to get up in 2 hours it would not be possible for me to join them.

Overnight it began to rain and when I left the hostel at 7am, it was grey and miserable. I had planned to take the subway to the ferry terminal but after waiting for 15 minutes I realised that even though the station was open the trains had not yet begun to run. I took a taxi. The ferry to Colonia took about an hour and the bus from Colonia to Montevideo another three. It was raining and the windows were foggy so I did not see much from my trip. I decided to walk from the bus station to the house where I am staying in Montevideo. It did not look very far on the map but the map did not have all the street names and I became a bit disoriented. There were many people on the streets who were homeless and I felt a bit uncomfortable in my bright pink raincoat and big backpack. I seriously wondering why I had chosen to come to this place and why I had chosen to walk when I arrived at my homestay and everything was better. The house is big and beautiful and is on the same block as the London Institute. Maria, my hostess speaks fluent English and spent much of her youth travelling the world. She now works as a Psychologist and teaches yoga and reiki. She has two children. Anja, 14, is in her sullen teenager phase and was still sleeping when I arrived at 2pm. Matthias, 11, loves everything futbol and walks around the house with a ball constantly at his feet. Maria´s sister and her daughter Emma, 7, were at the house also (although they live a few blocks away). I think I have become Emma´s friend for life after agreeing to dance around to Shakira with her. The house is 5 blocks from the beach and is in a very nice neighbourhood of cafes and embassies. My room has it´s own bathroom and a beautiful balcony. I spent the evening speaking with the family (mostly in English) and watching tv in Spanish. I am beginning to understand more and more when I listen but am still very hesitant speaking.

On Monday morning at 9am the weather had become beautiful again and I began Spanish lessons at the London Institute. My teacher Jose, a grandfather type, two other students, one from Switzerland and the other from Brazil, and I went on a field trip to Geant, the largest grocery store in South America. Geant is very similar to a Superstore but it was fun to walk around and learn the names of all the food, books, and clothes. Then we sat and chatted over coffee before going to a bookstore and talking about our favourite books and authors. My level of Spanish is not quite ready for this but I had a very good time and this is exactly how I want to learn. I spent the afternoon doing laundry and walking on the beach. I was supposed to have a class in the evening but my teacher called in sick and somehow I ended up in an English grammar class where there were several Uruguayan girls my age as well as a girl from Toronto, Carol, who is learning to be an English teacher. The class was pretty entertaining and afterwards Carol offered to show me around the town sometime this week.

This morning at school I had a different Spanish teacher and a class all to myself. I learned the basics of Spanish and now feel like maybe I could compose a proper sentence...if given enough time.

Uruguay is a beautiful place with white sand beaches and charming mediterranean architecture. There are many wealthy people here but it is also what Maria calls "a difficult social moment". The people here are paid less than the people in Argentina and the cost of living is higher. There is visible poverty in the streets and the houses are all surrounded by high fences and locked gates. Still it is a very interesting place that should not be bypassed because of its relative obscurity.

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photo by: aliciaaa