Mate, the herbal infusion drunk all over Argentina, may seem like the ideal road drink: it's a pleasant brew of mild stimulants. It's also a scalding handful of water with a metal straw sticking out. And the roads are bumpy.
For what appears to be a simple herbal tea, mate is serious business. Its Wikipedia entry is a good start on the obsessive level of strange rituals around its preparation and consumption. Our hosts are reasonable people. They do not, for instance, insist
on pouring the water on the mate clippings in any particular direction. There are people out there who will tell you that clockwise pouring is the devil’s work. Or is it counterclockwise?
What our hosts do insist on is consuming the stuff on the road. To illustrate the hazards of this practice, consider the way mate is drunk: a small, hollowed gourd or wooden cup is filled with the leaves of yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis), a sieved metal straw—a bombilla—is embedded in the mound of leaves, then warm water is poured on the leaves from a thermos. Mate is a shared drink: with one person in charge of the thermos, the gourd makes its way around the car, each person sipping off a few fluid ounces of fresh infusion before the gourd is filled with water again.
It is supposedly illegal to do this in a moving car and you can see why. While the water used for mate is not boiling, it is still around 170 °F or so, splendid for burning human skin. The roads around rural Argentina tend to be a bit choppy and Argentines are not shy about using as much throttle as they can get away with. Then there’s the matter of a steel tube sticking out of the cup. As we bumped north at a high clip in the Sierras de Córdoba, I tried to balance my heavy camera in one hand and the sloshing cup of mate in the other, and kept imagining the forensic details of a typical Argentine DUI report as I pushed my sad neuromotor skills to the limit: third degree burns in crotch area combined with a penetrating injury to the frontal lobe of the brain.
Miraculously, we survived. Hopped up on mate, our 1971 Renault 4 screamed all the way to the town of Jesús María, where we came face to face with Argentina’s awesome gaucho culture at the Festival de Doma y Folklore. These are people who go to dinner at midnight and rodeo until dawn. I wonder if mate has anything to do with their behavior. Or is it the goat carcasses roasting above the open pits?
Photo Credit: Andreas Lappe, Peter Orosz