The tea that makes friends
Mate. “Mah-tay”. Sound it out. It’s not “mate” as in your soul mate, but a two-syllable word that is the blood that pumps through Argentina.
I first tasted mate only a few days after arriving at the Universidad Adventista del Plata last September. For the academic year, I lived and breathed Spanish during my time in the Adventist Colleges Abroad program (ACA) in an attempt to master the language. Part of that included lots of practice and experiencing the culture. This meant that every opportunity I and the other ACA students had to interact with native speakers of Spanish, we took. That first Saturday night I was invited to an acquaintance's little apartment. As I settled myself onto the mattress serving as a couch, I was immediately offered mate.
A caffeinated tea that looks a bit like brackish river water (it doesn’t taste like that though), mate is drunk in a very special way. The traditional cup is made of a gourd and drunk with a combination straw and strainer called the bombilla (bom-bi-shah). After putting the bombilla into the gourd, loose tea (the yerba mate) is poured into the mate. Hot water is then poured over the yerba mate, and, if desired, sugar, lemon or honey can be added to taste. Now the mate is ready to drink.
But what sets this drink apart besides its unique preparation is the setting. When I was offered the mate, I was offered the mate and bombilla from which the guy beside me had just drunk. Each person would receive the mate from the cebador, or server, sip the tea until it slurped, and then pass it back to the cebador. After refilling it, the cebador would pass the mate to the next person in the circle.
So it continues. When the mate was offered to me, at first all I thought was that I knew the names of two of the six people present. Of those six, none were related to me, and now I had to drink from the same bombilla they had all been sharing from. But I was there to embrace the culture, so I drank it.
The rest of the evening passed with the making of spaghetti, lots more mate and laughter at jokes in both English and Spanish. I had overcome the initial fear of how to be friendly enough in a language I couldn’t speak to make friends. Now I had six within the first week.
It was only through the open and friendly culture of mate that I was able to feel comfortable in Argentina so quickly. People drink it at work, over their homework, in their offices and in bed. They carry a thermos of hot water around everywhere so they can sip as they walk. And they share. That is the beauty of mate. It is meant to be drunk in groups. “I don’t like to drink mate alone, it feels wrong,” says Megan Corney, a senior nursing major who studied abroad in Argentina her sophomore year.
Walking down the street, it was normal for me to be stopped, even by acquaintances and offered mate. These encounters quickly fostered more open and relaxed friendships than I’ve ever experienced in the United States. Whenever I see my mate sitting on my shelf now, I don’t think of the taste or how much honey I put in it. I think about all the times I sat in the shade, talking and laughing and sipping as the sun made its way across the sky.
Elena is a senior pursuing a personalized major.