Photo: Petrenko Andriy/Shutterstock

On the Ritual and Romance of Mate

by Ellen Keith Jul 9, 2013

El Rosedal is in the centre of Montevideo’s Parque Prado. It consists of a long, iron arbour draped with vines and roses and leads to a marble pergola. Doric columns encircle an old brass fountain.

Juan has brought me here. A tall, lanky boy with a shy smile, he’s a salsa dancer I met last night. It had taken an hour of coy eye contact before he ushered me onto the dance floor. One dance turned into ten; the night ended with a long conversation and a promise to meet again.

We sit on one of the many benches that line the colonnade, positioned so that a comfortable 12 inches separates us. Juan places the mate gourd between us, along with a paper bag filled with bizcochos, sweet and savoury pastries. I bite into a raspberry croissant as he prepares the drink.

Mate is a hot infusion that’s made with the crushed leaves of the yerba mate plant. In Uruguay, people walk the streets with a mate gourd in hand and a thermos of hot water tucked under their arm. They lounge in public places, talking and laughing as the gourd makes its rounds amongst circles of friends.

We had stopped by his home to grab the mate. There I met his mother, who reached out to embrace me as she balanced Juan’s one-year-old niece on her hip. We began chatting while Juan was in the kitchen. She told me about her children and granddaughter, and then pointed to a photo of a white-haired man with thick-rimmed glasses.

“My husband was 30 years my senior,” she said. “Though it felt as if we weren’t a day apart. He was so romantic. He used to send me poetry at work.”

Juan entered the room carrying the mate gourd and thermos.

“Love knows no boundaries,” she said with a small smile, and turned to follow us to the door.

“It’s important to add a little cold water first,” he explains. “It helps take away the bitterness.”

In the Rosedal, Juan packs the yerba mate into the wooden gourd, filling it halfway. He tilts the gourd, letting the leaves slide to one side, and then inserts the bombilla, a long metal straw with a sieve at the end.

“It’s important to add a little cold water first,” he explains. “It helps take away the bitterness.”

He demonstrates, before filling the rest of the gourd with hot water. Then, he samples the beverage, sucking at the bombilla until I hear a slurping noise. After refilling the water, he passes the mate to me.

I take a sip. The bitterness reminds me of green tea. I pass the gourd back to Juan and mumble a thank you.

“In Uruguay, you drink until the water is gone. It’s customary to only say thank you when you don’t want anymore.”

I laugh at my faux-pas and accept the gourd again. We talk of dance and work, of school, our friends. But as the sunset deepens to match the autumn leaves, I slip into the mate ritual and our conversation finds its flow.

Juan speaks passionately about his country, about a nation so small most people couldn’t place it on the map. A rocky recent history has scarred Uruguay’s international reputation, and tested the resilience of her people, but the country has come out on top. Juan’s eyes shine with patriotic love. I can’t help but wonder whether he’s felt such strong feelings for a woman. Moreover, I wonder if he’s ever sat here alone, watching the birds fly overhead, composing his own love poems.

I examine the 12-inch gap that separates us, a distance respectfully designated for acquaintances. With the last of the season’s roses blooming around us, we finish the mate and make our way back down the hill to his mother’s house, the gap between us growing ever smaller.

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