Travel Advent Dec. 3: For the Love of Yerba

I like to drink and occasionally smoke from time to time: but I can kick these poor habits quite easily if needed. There is, however, one addiction I can not and will not kick: the bitter yerba mate that has filled my veins continually for the past 10 years. Just writing about it now makes me crave its warm, filthy embrace.

Nothing else quite strokes my energy like the sweet herb. It’s kept me awake through high school and college and continues to get me through working an 8-4 job. It’s kept me from getting jittery as a trust fund frat baby on Wall Street, and beyond that has served as a cohesive social tool to connect with people — perhaps even stronger than the bond created by alcohol. I remember trying it for the first time as a boy and hating its overwhelming bitter flavor. It took me to go to Argentina at 15 to fall in love with mate.

I spent a month working in organic farms up in the northern state of Corrientes, which is one of the places where mate originates and is drunk at all hours of the day. The head of the farm would give us one 15 minute break for a mate before lunch. Not long enough for these working-class Argentines. But we’d always push his boundaries, staying and passing mate and sharing cookies for upwards of 45 minutes, occasionally with him, smiling a smile flaked with cookie crumbs in between crooked teeth.

When he would leave the farm to go into town, we would immediately sneak off and have a mate while he was gone: sometimes for two hours just sitting, sipping, making fun of each other, and gossiping. I was the only big tall gringo boy working with a group of short middle-aged indigenous women. I was always the brunt of their jokes, but as long as mate was being passed around we were as good as family.

Mate has always come up with Uruguayan and Argentine travelers. I’ve passed mates with Uruguayans in Spain and Poland and regularly share one with incoming Argentine travelers in Denmark. It’s an instant way to bond, to share not only one’s saliva but one’s time and tales. I’m not sure how this pandemic will change how we drink mate but I’ve only shared mate once this year with someone — and even then it was a cautious occasion. Not being able to share a mate puts a whole generation of socializing Latinos at risk…but we’re likely all too addicted to care once we can meet and share a mate once more.

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