Buenos Aires Travel Blog› entry 6 of 17 › view all entries
The first really culturally specific object that I can identify with Argentina is the mate/yerba mate combination. In short, the mate is a gourd or leather “pouch” (think canteen with out a top) and the yerba mate is the substance with which you make the drink out of. It is a type of tea; although when tourists are first approached with the substance many believe it to be an illegal drug. Unlike the elitist English tea, the yerba mate is a communal-bonding experience associated with the lower class. It isn’t offered in cafes or restaurants and upper class citizens don’t discuss the fascination that surrounds it. The tea is strong and tourists or friends are given ample sugar with their first taste. It is poured into an empty gourd and shaken, so that the finer powder sticks to the hand covering the opening and can be discarded; the only substance left is thick and leafy. Once the gourd (called a ‘mate’, versus the actual tea is ‘yerba mate’) is three quarters of the way filled up, water is added- only enough to begin to float the leaves. Then, the straw is added and used to mix the slush. If preferred, sugar is applied to the top and will immediately dissolve throughout the drink to provide a reprieve from the mate bitterness. It is customary to drink all of the water in the mate, and then refill it before passing to the next person. I’ve asked many Argentines and Uruguayans why they practice this but no one was able to give me a direct answer. Some said that it was for the spread of germs, others said that it had to do with a give and receive relationship- like the North American Indian’s ideas that when offered a gift it is rude to deny or decline- so when offered mate one drinks all of the drink to show appreciation for it and then follows that up with a gift of a fresh cup for the next friend. When finished the mate is dumped out and rinsed, then stored in a dry area for the next use.
Thus far I have been to Salto, Mendoza, Concordia, Colonia, and Buenos Aires- with most of my time spent in the former. In regards to the mate drink one thing has become increasingly apparent and has lead to an interesting hypothesis. In walking around the various cities, I have noticed that yerba mate is consumed more regularly and with more ferocity in Buenos Aires than in the other cities noted. My hypothesis is that the consumption is higher because the city is more prone to depression. I have definitely felt the Buenos Aires lows for the past few days. Many ideas as to the cause of the lack of candor come to mind: the incredible pollution, lack of sunlight, or even the diet. Whichever the cause, Buenos Aires is seen as a pessimistic and “triste” country- a point that was explicitly driven home by my professor Gabriel. In short, my hypothesis is that the combination of depression and economic recession created the need for a stimulant- namely mate but coffee as well, and that’s why it is seen with such frequency.