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Mate

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Mate, the quintessential South American beverage.  It’s basically really strong tea, the loose herb filling about two-thirds of your chosen cup, hollowed gourd, or even grapefruit half.  You sip it through the bombilla, a sort of metal straw with a filter at the bottom.  I hear it’s a whole different scene in other places; all I know about is mate in Palena.

The first time I had mate was in Mexico, because I wanted to order something on the menu I didn’t know.  I tried to move around the straw but was told, “No, you have to keep it there.”  The second time was my first morning in Palena with the other American teacher, and I also didn’t like it.  But after four months in Palena, it has grown on me to the extent that today I reached a landmark: I drank mate by myself.

You see, mate is social.  When you go to someone’s house, they offer you mate.  Well, if they like you — I’ve heard people offer coffee to visitors they are more wary of.  And there is a whole mate protocol.  One person serves, using water that hasn’t yet boiled, sipping and then spitting out the first two full cups (too bitter), then hands the mate to each person in a circle.  You hand back the cup with your right hand (I think?) and say, “Gracias [Thank you]” only when you’ve had enough.  Mate is big in the morning, after lunch, and can also be served sweet, with sugar.

But here’s the other thing about mate: it’s kind of a cliché.  People from Santiago don’t drink mate in their houses, but they do drink it when they dress up with their students in woolen ponchos for “Cultural History Month”, to represent Patagonia.  At school in the teacher’s room, there is coffee and tea, but not mate — though one teacher keeps mate in his own room.  Back in Coyhaique, bombillas were sold alongside postcards and woolen keychains.  When tourists came in the summer to see the weaving here in the Foundation office, C also served mate, and the blond-haired, blue-eyed Americans ooed and ahed in interest at the Mate Circle Around the Wood Stove — “What a beautiful tradition!”  One man remarked on how mate was served differently when he was doing community service in Uruguay.

In all of these ways, mate is definitely what you say about Palena and about Patagonia, but it isn’t necessarily as prominent in day-to-day life as you would expect.  Mate highlights the palenenses — outsiders divide.  Of the several dozen teachers, only three are from Palena, and I gather that the same proportion hold true at the other professional employers — in the hospital, in the police station, and in my personal favorite, the muni (town hall).  Most of these people earn up to double what they would otherwise for working in an isolated region.

The funny thing is, I am both the ultimate outsider, and yet in some ways more attuned to the “inside” because of my job with the Foundation.  I’ve had mate in the kitchens of houses without telephones as I’ve gone to visit women we work with in some of the social development projects, such as the Local Weaver’s Network and Local Producer’s Network.  Unlike the teachers who live in pensions, I wrestle with a wood stove on a daily basis, a great conversation topic with people here.  In this way, I know more about the rural areas around Palena than plenty of the other young professionals.  By nature of my citizenship, I am automatically at the top of the local hierarchy, yet I am also in some ways removed and exempt from it, allowed the opportunity to view the intra-national stratification as an outside observer.

A Chilean guide I know observed that gringos from the US (gringo here is more of a look that a nationality) seem to be a little turned off by the mate thing because of the germ-sharing.  I have to say, this was also one of my initial reactions, but recently I’ve forgotten about it.  When C came over for my birthday, she said, “Oh, are we going to have mate?” when she saw I had set out the supplies.  “Of course!” I said.  At this point, I crave mate more than coffee with sweet things, especially Patagonian sweet things, like sopapillas, a un-sweetened deep-fried dough square, sometime served with melted cheese, other times with powdered sugar.

So today, as I settled down to a few leftover brownies, I thought, “You know what I want right now?  Mate.”  As I’d been warned, it’s boring drinking mate by yourself, but still, the intense bitter taste was just the thing with the rich chocolate.  After all, it’s almost Winter Solstice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. David Russell permalink
    Monday, June 20, 2011 4:59 am

    Perceptive observations from the insider/outsider cultural commentator! It is always interesting to deepen and complicate our understanding of things, and you do that for us with each post. Humor is always welcome as well, and it’s reliably in there also. “Mate Circle Around the Wood Stove” and “Almost Winter Solstice”!

  2. Monday, June 20, 2011 5:58 am

    I’m glad YOU thing it’s funny it’s almost winter solstice… that makes one of us!

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