Saturday, September 6, 2008

Mate Mythology 101

Our final day here in Uruguay and I had planned a spectacular mate shoot where I'd cruise the whole city taking pictures of a wide range of mate drinkers - police, kids, beggars, businessmen, drivers (while driving), etc. Unfortunately, the rainy season began today in Montevideo so my promised mate blog fell far short of my desired anticipations. Nevertheless, here it is and remember, as the guy said tonight while he was cooking up chorizos for Joo and me, "If you don´t drink mate, then you surely aren´t Uruguayan."

The basic rules of mate are very simple. Once you´ve loaded your mate (gourd or other drinking apparatus) with yerba (the actual herb, a relative of holly), you pour...

and drink...

and repeat the process continuously until either your thermos is empty or the world ends. Those are the basic rules of course. The real culture goes much deeper. If you add fruits to your mate, you´d be welcomed in Argentina, but scorned as a heretic in Uruguay. Drinking alone also seems to be more acceptable in Argentina, whereas Uruguayans tend to see it as a communal event. If you do choose to participate in communal mate, the servidor (server) initiates it by offering the mate to the person on his right. That person drinks it completely and passes it back to the server, who refills it and moves counterclockwise around the circle. The server will continually pour drinks to each person in turn until they say gracias (although apparently Joo´s Korean head nod is an acceptable substitute). The drinkers can enjoy as long as they desire until this point, as long as they don´t touch the bombilla (metal siphoning straw).

Hmm... you must be thinking... this eternal refill gives the drinkers unlimited power! Not so fast. The server wields more subtle weapons like the -shudder- WASHED mate. A mate is considered lavado or washed when it has been through too many refills and the server refuses to either rotate or change the mate. A sure sign that the ceremony is over. But not near as bad as the OVERFLOW. You´d think being handed an overflowing mate would be a welcoming sign, but as it turns out, it basically means, "Go away, you´re not welcome at this mate fiesta."

Thankfully, Joo and I experienced nothing but flavorful, hot, appropriately full mates from our first servidor Emilio...

But, despite the rain, I was determined to nail down some mate pictures for our blog since I had promised you, the reader... so I finally said my "gracias" to Emilio and Joo and I set out in search of drinkers. At first, we had people pose...

But that was rather unnatural. So we decided to stalk people from an upstairs McDonalds window. This was also rather unsuccessful, but we did have a couple that turned out enough for you to be able to witness the elegant "cradle" where the Uruguayans manage to hold their thermos AND mate in one hand, leaving the other free for cigarettes, umbrellas, etc.

There is an entire mythology built around the miraculous powers of mate - anti-carcinogous, stimulating like coffee but easier on the stomach, weight loss, and brain power. I´m not sure how they would hold up in scientific testing, but I believe the brain power one at least. Joo and I saw a trash can catch on fire near a busy street this evening...

Within seconds, the homeless man across the street who had been curled up in newspapers (sipping his mate?) rushed over and used the fire to light his cigarette. Now that´s quick thinking...

So, as we leave the friendly land of Uruguay, the final question on my mind is... "If Mom were to visit Uruguay, would she drink mate or tea?"


  1. What in the world??? It even looks like our sign. Mom

  2. So, no Starbucks in South America?? When you open your coffee house someday, I'm thinking mate will be a hot item on the menu :).
    love ya, heather

  3. So now the question I have for you is. Is the Mate Yerba that I served in my house the same as this type of mate?