I've been both dreading and eager to write about mate at the same time, because to write about mate is to explain it and to explain it is to honor it and all of its nuances... and nuances there are many! Of all the literature about mate that the internet can provide, Munchies' How to Drink Yerba Mate in South America is the best breakdown that I've come across, but even it is not perfect. That's because any analysis of mate inevitably weighs in heavily on one particular preference whether it's national, regional, or individual; For Munchies it's too heavy a focus on Buenos Aires (where they tend to fill the mate gourd up to the very top with water rather than leave the top leaves dry: a preference elsewhere, particularly up north) But the piece does touch on the very real fact that every individual mate drinker has his or her own preference, opinion, and very close attention to detail as far as their personal preparation of mate goes. This attention to detail is often such that it puts any bearded, beanie-wearing coffee aficionado to shame.*
The first thing you should know is that mate is a beverage but it's also the gourd itself. This took me an embarrassingly long time to comprehend and it is perhaps the most difficult part of the Getting the Whole Mate Thing. To just about anyone whose not a South American, the mate gourd looks vaguely illegal and 100% intimidating. So, lesson no. 1: Mate is both the gourd and the beverage, but it's more holistically (lesson no. 2) the process of drinking yerba (dried tea leaves a native to South America) from the gourd.
"To share mate" a Tucumano said while pouring, "is to be friends." Every time anyone shares mate (and as I haven't purchased or cured my own mate yet, I only share it), only one person does the preparation and the pouring. He or she fills the mate (in whatever methodical preference is his or her own) and passes it to one person to drink from the metal straw, or bombilla. The drinker then passes it back to the pourer who refills and passes to the next person. This can make drinking mate (at least as a gringa) terrifying, because one doesn't want to offend any certain method. I've discovered that this fear of offending is just not worth the exhaustion. At the end of the day, it's mate among friends. Therefore I can only offer my experience with mate thus far. If I am lucky and the mate spirits are with me, I will do the drink a small sip of justice at the very least.
I think a lot about this idea that to share mate is "to be friends," and I still don't exactly know what this means: Does sharing mate make you friends or does being friends make you share mate? At what point in the process are you friends? What if you don't know their name? Are you still friends even though you're sharing mate and you don't know their name? I let my highly caffeinated mind wander.
But I've come to the conclusion that "mate" (which is sort of the gourd and sort of the drink but really the process) is just as hard to define as, say, the sensation of befriending another human. The best part about friendship is that defining it, no matter how many Happy Birthday birthday Facebook wishes or Snapchats sent and received, doesn't really matter. Rather what matters is how that friend makes you think and feel (Maya Angelou definitely said that, and it's her most-liked quote on goodreads for goodreasons). Yerba mate - like a good friend - makes you feel great like a cup of bubbly sunshine and that you can stay up for hours and do anything you set your mind to do.
I came to Argentina having graduated college with a certain set of criteria for what makes something dangerous. In other words, I didn't realize that my brain had in its subconscious racked up an extensive list of things to avoid, even if I didn't necessarily always obey it. Such things included: a dimly lit street corner, anything behind or around an orange sign/cone/hat, anyone standing within 5 yards of me at the ATM, green stuff on my bagel, or a used straw. Of course, just because I have this little list doesn't mean I have always followed it. There have been times when I have walked home alone late at night and regretted it, my heart racing and my brain reminding me that I made a not-so-great decision; next time I don't walk home alone. Every time I share a $7 Coke at a movie theater, my brain riots against the germs I might be sharing; I share it anyway. When I divulge a lot of my feelings with someone I don't know so well, my brain regrets it later; next time I don't share my feelings at all. Rightly or wrongly, is this not more or less how any person's life goes?
I've grown more conscious of this list of dangers here in Corrientes, considering it less a tride-and-true list of dangers and more a series of plot points by which my life shapes and shifts. My worries and fears, inextricably linked to these "dangers" are, in a different place, thrown into confusion. The culture is such that it doesn't even give me the choice of walking home alone late at night. It doesn't give me the choice of not sharing a mate straw. And perhaps hardest to accept: I must always share my feelings, no matter how big or small.
I've learned that when an Argentine asks me what's wrong, I can't dodge the question or fake an answer. They really get to the root of the thing and make you talk about it. Argentina -- and Corrientes in particular- is the kind of culture where if you're standing somewhere looking or feeling even vaguely lost, dazed or confused, someone will take your hand and guide you to a place of comfort and then equip that hand with hot mate. I've found myself explaining in detail everything from my too-late-in-the-morning jog when the sun was already too strong to why exactly -- EXACTLY -- I'm into Drake and Rihanna collaborating: a question to which I don't even remember my answer. The sun doesn't need to be awake for long to be powerful, unlike me, and neither is it shy. I am learning that I am shyer, perhaps more Scotch-Irish and hesitant to divulge my feelings than I thought, and that my opinions on Drake are much less fully formed than I had previous to this week supposed. But as long as I am among friends and drinking mate, none of that really matters.
*I say this with reverence, not condescension because I really, really miss a special cup of coffee that went through like 17 tubes.