Bittersweet

In The Art of Travel, 4. The Spirit of Place, Buenos Aires by Kiana

I want to talk about the spirit encapsulated in a small gourd. There are many arguably more important symbols of a city with tumultuous history in government and human rights, but worry about that later. I’m going to focus on the gourd. Every morning, Buenos Aires wakes up and kicks off the day with not coffee, but mate (pronounced maté). Perhaps you’ve heard of Guayaki brand Yerba Mate, which is glass bottle commercialism available in most US grocery stores. True mate is steeped dry leaves of yerba mate served in a hollow gourd with a silver metal straw, or bombilla. My knowledge of mate culture is limited to the five weeks I’ve lived here, but have no doubt. The bitter tea has already made itself disproportionately prominent in my life this semester. In most cases, mate will be prepared in the morning before any sort of congregation. For example, family breakfast might include mate, as would a morning class. The gourd is passed around in a circle, and each person has a sip before passing it to the next. The leaves are highly caffeinated, so the drink is meant to be shared.

So why do I think mate captures the spirit of Argentina? Like I said, mate is a communal drink. One doesn’t prepare it with the intention of consuming in isolation, mate provokes togetherness. The very passing of the drink around a room insists that everyone sit in a circle. By forming a shape conducive to the passing of the mate, the participants create a space in which everyone can see and interact with one another. Here at the academic center, we have a couple of mate gourds and straws in our little kitchen, and most mornings we need all the caffeine we can get. As a result, if you walk into the academic center on any given morning, you might find some of us hanging out around the counter, watching someone pack spoonfuls of the dried leaves into a gourd. I myself am a daily customer of a four-shot espresso iced coffee, or in more clinical terms, a psycho, so I’m usually more than happy to initiate. I like that a tradition of the Argentine community has so quickly created a cohesiveness between the 60 of us who decided to make the trip down here. Think about it this way: one seemingly dinky gourd evokes a warm sense of community every time it is used.

One morning in Spanish class, I was struggling with a clogged straw. My professor noticed and took an immediate pause in the grammar lesson to give us a lecture on how to properly clean out mate straws. This eagerness to spread correct usage reveals a pride Argentines have in their consumption. Clearly, mate is not just a drink, it is a symbol of a closely knit community. It implies a nation of mamas y papas raising their hijos in the culture of their abuelos, and a pride in heritage that cannot be replaced by fads and American ideology. To me, mate is a beautiful example of maintaining some cultural history while staying relevant in the modern world. Argentina and other South American nations that consume mate could not stay sectors of indigenous tribe Guaraní forever, but the tradition of closeness and sharing has been passed down in the form of mate. I sit in class with a laptop and a cell phone in my bag. I have the ability to send a photo to my mom thousands of miles away, while speaking with a friend another thousand miles in the opposite direction, but I think it’s pretty cool that I’m not. Instead, I’m engaging with the people around me. I’ve mentioned in previous posts how enthralling the people are here, and I can see why. Mate, and many other aspects of Argentine culture have been created by a people who interact exuberantly and love ferociously. I think the spirit of the city and the nation is embodied in this custom, and that’s why it doesn’t feel right for me to have my own mate just yet. Maybe it’ll be a parting piece.

Image source

  • mate-collection: Kiana