Today in class we finally tried yerba mate, a traditional custom in not only Argentina but Uruguay, Paraguay, and the general Rio de la Plata area. It's like tea, but not really. In fact, they do sell yerba mate in teabags like regular tea, but it's not considered "real mate." Mate (pronounced MAH-tay) is about more than the drink itself; we tried in class but could not come up with its U.S. equivalent. A transcription of Lalo Mir's description of mate says this: "El mate es exactamente lo contrario a la televisión: te hace conversar si estas con alguien, y te hace pensar cuando estas solo...El sencillo mate es toda una demostración de valores. Es el respeto por los tiempos para hablar y escuchar. Es el compañerismo hecho momento." Translated: mate is exactly the opposite of T.V.: it makes you start a conversation if you're with someone, and if you're alone it makes you sit and think. The simple mate is a demonstration of values. It's respect for time to talk and listen. It's camaraderie in a moment.
When you buy mate, what you're buying is dried leaves. You pour some of those leaves into the special cup-- made of wood, ceramic, or a hollowed-out gourd-- and shake them up until it leaves a residue on your hand. Then you pour a bit of cold water in so that the hot water you add after doesn't burn the leaves. And it's hot water that you add, not boiling water. If you boil the water, it will ruin the flavor of the mate. You drink yerba mate out of a thick silver straw called a bombilla that filters out the leaves. When you are in a group, you share the mate. You take a few sips until most of the liquid is gone, then you pour more hot water in and pass the cup. It is in poor taste to wipe the straw before you drink: the water is hot enough to kill germs, and those who are sick generally do not partake as a courtesy to the others. You do not use the bombilla as a stirrer, or in fact move the bombilla at all. You simply take your drink, pour hot water in (you pour the water more or less on the spot where the bombilla is in the cup), pass, and repeat. It's a delicious, warm, comforting drink and a custom that has no real equivalent that I can think of, at least in the U.S.