My first experiences in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay all involved mate…
In Argentina the guy who sold me my bus ticket from Puerto Iguazú to Córdoba was drinking some strange green substance from a sawn off plastic flask, but my Spanish was at that stage not sufficient to ask anything of it. I had to make do with gestures and – his English being similarly non-existent – received the metal straw in response. Not wanting to seem impolite, I sucked on it and was greeted with a raspy gurgling and a hot sickly liquid which was at the same time both bitter and sweet.
In Paraguay the navy admiral who greeted us at that country’s northernmost outpost, Bahía Negra, may have been somewhat perplexed by our arrival at what was not officially a port of entry but he was not taken enough aback to forget to offer us his large pink thermos which was both the size and shape of a rugby ball. What ensued was much more pleasant than the Argentine experience: not only was the infusion ice-cold, but it was also more aromatic and a lot less sweet.
By the time I got to Uruguay, almost two years after I first touched down in Argentina, I should have been prepared for an overabundance of gourds. But nothing could quite condition me for their sheer ubiquity in this tiny low-lying country. Mate drinking is very popular in Argentina but it is always a social affair. In Uruguay people walk down the street – flask in one hand, gourd in the other – sipping to themselves as they go about their daily business.
Mate is made from the dried leaves of the Ilex paraguariensis tree, and it is usually drunk from a gourd (also called a mate) by sucking through a metal straw (bombilla). The mate is put into the gourd and hot (but not boiling) water is added by the pourer who then passes it to one of the drinkers. Each drinker finishes the water he or she is given (usually two or three sips) before returning the gourd to the pourer, after which the process is repeated. When the mate gets a bit weak, another spoonful will be added to the gourd but usually a few spoonfuls will last an hour or so. Most people take their mate with sugar and this too is administered by the pourer.
In Paraguay mate is drunk cold and in this form it is know as tereré. Tereré is said to have developed during the Chaco War in the 19th century when Paraguayan troops were ordered to light no fires as these would give away their positions to the enemy. This may or may not be true, but there is no doubt that the cold variant of mate is better suited to the extremely hot Paraguayan climate. Often aromatic herbs (yuyos) are mixed with the iced water in the thermos – these are supposed to be good for your health.
Mate itself might not actually be that healthy. It contains caffeine in quantities lower than those found in tea or coffee but it seemed to leave me more jittery than either of those substances.
In all three countries mate is an important social glue. Families matear (the verb ‘to drink mate’) together as do friends and colleagues. Mate can be drunk at home or in the office; in plazas and parks or on buses or in airports. It is unlikely that you will be offered mate by complete strangers, but if someone you meet on your travels does offer it to you, be sure to accept. And don’t be overly pedantic about wiping the communal straw clean…you wouldn’t be offered mate if the pourer was unsure of your hygiene standards, so you should return this trust.