“Welcome to the party!” greets Javier, opening the door to let me into his apartment.
I met Javier on CouchSurfing when posting on the Mendoza, Argentina, forum. We ended up going wine tasting together and afterward he invited me to a party at his house to meet his friends and have some drinks. While I had expected to walk into a room of loud music, smoking, liquor and card playing, the space was oddly relaxed. Instead of scantily clad Argentine girls and drunk guys, a group of six locals sit around playing Trivial Pursuit, listening to Carlos Gardel and sipping a tea-like concoction out of metal mugs. Javier’s mother stands in the kitchen, boiling water and preparing some herbs.
“What’s she making?” I ask.
“Mate,” Javier smiles. “It’s the main reason everyone is here.”
Javier’s mom runs out to greet me. “Hello!” she bursts excitedly, speaking very clear English. “Javier says you’ll be having some mate with us?”
I nod. Everyone seems oddly enthusiastic about tea. Don’t get me wrong, I love it myself, but I’ve never had friends over on a Friday night to all gather round’ a table to drink it.
His mom brings me a mate, the metal cup locals drink it out of, and a bombilla, a long metal straw. The mixture doesn’t really look like the tea I’m used to. Instead, the herbs and spices chunk together in a thick mixture.
“I’ve never seen tea like this before,” I say.
“It’s not tea,” Javier responds. “It’s mate. You’re drinking yerba mate leaves with caffeine, herbs, protein and hot water. Speaking of which, the straw can get very hot so be careful.”
Drinking the mate is almost like a ceremony. Since Javier’s mom prepared it, she is the first one to take a taste. Then, she passes it on to the next person. It reminds me of watching my pothead roommates smoke blunts with random strangers in our living room and pass it around. There was a sense of community they seemed to form, which is what seems to be happening with the mate.
“Thank you,” I say, reaching to take the drink from a girl named Rose.
Rose pulls it away and passes it to the person next to me.
Javier notices the incident and laughs. “When you say ‘thank you’ it means you don’t want anymore. That’s why you can’t thank people each time they pass you the mate.”
The drink is given back to me for my first sip. It smells pungent, and I wince for a quick second. I don’t want to be rude though – and I am interested to see what all the hype is about – so I sip. Javier notices my face twist in agony and runs to grab some sugar.
“Add this,” he advises. “It can be pretty bitter, especially if you’ve never had it before.”
We pass the mate around again, this time with the sugar added. When it comes back to me, I don’t say thank you but simply take the cup. I know better than to take a whiff this time and just go for it. While the drink is still bitter, it’s a lot better than last time. And, as the mate keeps going around the circle, it gets better and better. We sit for hours, playing board games, laughing and talking about the differences between American and Argentine culture.
“In New York I don’t think I’ve ever known anybody to have friends over on a weekend night just to hangout and drink anything that wasn’t beer or liquor,” I say. “Maybe I’ll be the first when I get home.”
Javier nods. “You should! Show your friends how great mate is. It’s a smart way to have people over for a night of drinking without spending much money.”
I purchase a bag of Rosamonte yerba mate, which I’m told is the best brand you can get. Miraculously, I get it through customs and safely back to my home in New York. This was six months ago, and the bag still sits unopened in my cupboard. Although I’d mentioned my idea of having people over to drink mate and play board games to my friends, nobody seemed too enthusiastic about the idea. And, why would they? It’s not part of our culture. They have never experienced how sitting in a circle passing a mate and bombilla around can bring a room full of strangers together, and they probably never will.
Today, I decide to make a cup of mate for myself. I even purchased the appropriate cup and straw when I was in Argentina, so I had all the necessary supplies. Once prepared, I glanced at the drink excitedly, then took a long swig.
“Puh!” I spat without thinking. “Maybe mate is best drank with friends. In Argentina.”