The Pleasures of Mate


Yerba mate (MA-tay) is in the holly family. It’s cultivated in northern Argentina and its leaves are dried and shredded into goldfish food-like flakes. In Argentina the “palos,” or stems, are left in. In Uruguay the stems are taken out. Uruguayans say Argentinian mate is “all sticks.” Argentinians say, “Uruguay is not a real country.”

To prepare mate first heat water. I almost wrote “boil,” but boiling is one of the cardinal sins of mate preparation. You’re less likely to offend an Argentinian by snorting the yerba than by boiling the water. They claim it changes the water’s “composition,” that it burns the yerba. What it does do is make steep faster, and thus less suitable for sharing, which is the primary objective of mate. Mate can be drunk alone, and if you drink enough mate you’ll inevitably drink it alone, just as in life you’ll eventually be all alone. Those around you will perish, and you’ll be sitting on a park bench somewhere, sipping mate.

While the water is heating prepare your gourd, or simply “mate.” Fill it two thirds full, tilt it and insert the straw at the low end so it digs in and touches the bottom.  Some people prime the yerba with lukewarm water, claiming this makes it less likely to burn. I learned mate preparation from an Argentinian woman named Mercedes who yelled at me when it was too hot or too cold, and grumbled when it hadn’t been primed. I still remember the first time I prepared it well, passed it to her, and she said, after taking a sip, “Está bien.”

Once the yerba is primed add hot water, making sure not to get all the yerba wet at once. Pour a small quantity into the cavity created by the straw. Drink it yourself, drink it until it’s gone, then refill it and pass it to the left. Do not leave part of it un-drunk. And do not touch the straw. Hold the mate by the gourd, never the straw.  Argentinians are adamant about this. I think they think holding the straw makes you look weak.

The one who prepares the mate is called the cebador/a and is in charge of all subsequent mate pours for that session. Being the cebador is a good feeling. It’s like commanding a large fleet of ships, except in this case it’s only one ship and it’s really a small wooden vessel meant for serving tea. However, with the position of cebador comes great responsibility. Argentinians will judge you on the quality of your preparation. If an Argentinian is evaluating you as a potential mate, your ability to “cebar” will make or break his/her decision. Is she going to spend the rest of her life with someone who can’t prepare mate? Have unskilled-at-mate-preparing babies? Spend afternoons in the park drinking lukewarm water and weeping?

Lately I’ve been drinking pre-prepared mate from grocery stores like PCC and Whole Foods. It’s becoming more common. Real mate is better, but to find the real mate drinkers you need to head south. Upon crossing into Argentina you’ll start to see them. In Chile you have to go a bit further south, at least south of Santiago.

The ritual of mate is not just the social aspect, the taste, or the satisfaction you get from doing something well. It’s all of these things. It’s synergy. So go to your local grocery store and buy a bag. Or better yet, buy a gourd (they sell good, polyurethane ones on Amazon), some yerba (Guayaki isn’t terrible, but Rosamonte or Cruz de Malta are better), and make some new friends.

Just remember not to boil the water. Or touch the straw).


Cemetery, Caleta Amargos, Chile.

La vida es una sucesión de equívocos que nos conducen a la verdad final, la única verdad.

-Roberto Bolaño,  Nocturno de Chile 

My thoughts this morning are firmly centered on bread and butter with honey and tea. I will not let myself get out of bed until I’ve finished a post, which means I can’t have bread and butter with honey and tea until I’ve finished this post.

It was so easy so for about a week, I’d write all the posts on my phone, and it would just flow. But it seems the river has dried up. Now I’m relegated to writing about writing, which they always warn you about. They warn you about writing about writing and about just describing your immediate surroundings. These are two things I want to do pretty much all of the time.

My immediate surroundings, of course, are my bed and the wall and the TV I’m not sure works, an empty coffee mug and an almost finished thing of honey that has made the plastic bag it’s in sticky. On the nightstand there’s book 2 of My Struggle in Spanish and also a notebook for writing longhand that I haven’t used in a long time. On the floor are two backpacks, one the travel backpack I’ve had since 2007 that’s actually been in this house before, the other a small Columbia backpack for day trips. I’ve never had the luxury of having two backpacks with me when I travel. This is the advantage of having a car.

I pause and look around the room, looking for “inspiration.” I re-read the two paragraphs I’ve written, wondering where to go from there. Really, I just want to get up and go have bread and butter and honey and start my day. Today I’m driving to either Carelmapu or Chiloe. I don’t know which one. Either way I’ll almost, almost be as far south as I wanted to go on this trip. The whole goal of this trip was to get in my car and go south. And now I’m south. And what happens next?

Outside there’s a guy hammering something. He doesn’t stop. I wonder what he’s hammering. I wonder if Wendy got stolen last night. I have to stop putting the club on her. She can’t get stolen if she has the club on her. Not that anyone would steal her down here anyway. This town is too nice. Too affluent. Then why are there people selling seaweed on the side of the street?

Quit listening to other people.

The illustration on the cover of the Bolaño book is a boat in rough seas with a bunch of German Shepherds in it. I guess it’s supped to be a parody of that famous painting of the man in his boat on the stormy seas. The best part is that the German Shepherds don’t look scared, they’re just looking around happily and panting.

This morning I didn’t take my morning walk. I didn’t see the sea lions. I haven’t gotten out of bed, except to go to the bathroom. My head is stating to feel a bit sore from being on the pillow. But how many words do I have now? Three hundred? I must have at least 300. For some reason I’ve decided all my posts need to be at least that long. It’s not very long. In a novel, it would be about a page. One page.

Actually, over 500 words. OK, time to get out of bed. Let’s do this. Let’s go south to this damn island. Never stop. Never look back.

(But first some bread and butter with honey and tea.)

Driving with Wendy

Wendy looking hip.

Yesterday everything returned to normality: my thoughts and body. If I lived here in Valdivia I’d easily slip into a routine: I’d wake up, I’d walk along the waterfront, I’d look at the sea lions, and then I’d either go home, write, and then go to work, or go right to work and then write afterward. I’d make friends eventually. I could carve out a life for myself here, but I won’t. Tomorrow I’ll keep going on to Carelmapu, and then after that to Chiloe. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Chiloe is the last stop. It’s south enough.

I decided to write yesterday’s blog on the computer, and it was an unsatisfactory experience. It was too easy. It’s too easy to type. It’s like having a firehose for a trickle. I found myself typing just to type. And even worse, it was too easy to go back and look at what I’d written, and when I do that I usually conclude that it’s bad and want to stop or start over. By the end I’d written over a thousand words and I was happy with two of the sentences. Computer typing, then, is not ideal. Neither is longhand, though that’s better. The best method for writing is clear: in a chair somewhere on a cellphone.

After the Internet cafe, where I also checked my finances and made a halfhearted attempt to buy some Christmas gifts on Amazon, I went to a cafe called La Ultima Frontera that is without a doubt the most hip and popular cafe in Valdivia. It was packed. I sat there for awhile, feigning not being interested in getting a table. I stood for awhile looking out at the street as if I was waiting for someone. Finally I stood inside and one of the waiters asked me if I was waiting for a table. How many people are you? he said. Just me, I said. You’re lucky, he said, a table outside ok? Yes but I don’t want to sit at a big table if it’s just me. He paused. There’s no one else waiting, he said.

The lunch was delicious but I wasn’t that hungry from all the bread and butter and honey I’d eaten earlier. I was conscious of being alone, of dining alone, but had a Roberto Bolaño book there to distract me. The food was couscous and meatloaf, and I devoured it. I didn’t linger but instead got up to pay, remarking on what a short lunch it had been. Dining alone is definitely not ideal.

That night I went surfing at a beach called La Mision. It’s not a surf beach. The waves were poor and it was a miracle I caught one decent one. On the beach walking back to Wendy I saw a guy walking toward me looking like he wanted to talk. Oh God, I thought, I don’t want to talk to this guy. His name was Pablo and he was from Spain. I immediately felt bad about not wanting to talk to him. He had lived in Centralia, Washington, a couple hours south of Seattle. Why did you live there? I asked. No one lives in Centralia. For work, he said. He was also a surfer and had also driven his car down to Chile. He asked where I was going to be and what waves I’d surfed. You know what the best wave was, in the whole trip? I said. His eyes perked up. Lebu, I said. That wave is incredible.

We talked a little more. He asked if I was camping there and I was a little embarrassed to say I was staying in a guesthouse back in Valdivia. His enthusiasm was genuine and he seemed like a good guy. I hope we meet again. I walked back up to Wendy and was surprised to see a car with Oregon plates behind her. He had just told me he was doing the same drive but I didn’t really internalize it. Seeing the Oregon plates was comforting. It made me a bit homesick. But Wendy doesn’t have time for such sentimentalities and demanded to be driven back into town.