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).

Good Morning

philosophical questions

It’s morning in Carahue, Chile. Dogs are barking outside. A car alarm just went off, killing any thoughts I had about going back to sleep. Instead I get up, wander downstairs, and see if anyone’s up who can give me hot water for mate.

I would heat it up on my own, but there’s a sign on the kitchen door that says “authorized personnel only,” so instead I wander back upstairs where I lie in bed and think about this morning and also mornings in general.

For me mornings are a time of infinite possibilities. They are a time of rebirth. In the morning I haven’t ingested anything bad for me. I am clean physically and usually mentally too. I don’t want to drink in the morning. I don’t know many people who do. Why is it ok to drink in the evening and not in the morning? How can our attitudes change so much in the course of only 12 hours? Some things are acceptable in the morning, while others are not. It’s acceptable to eat eggs and bacon and toast in the morning, but in the evening it would be considered strange or possibly cute. Waffles for dinner, they say. How cute. Morning is a time for showering and shaving. People who shower at night are strange, even though in many ways it makes more sense. How can you get into bed with the filth of the day on you? The filth that comes from living?

Mornings are a time for routine, usually calculated. Your day is calculated and then at the end of the day, when you’ve done everything you’re supposed to, you can lounge about and do nothing. There is comfort in this routine. Wake up, shower, go downstairs, eat breakfast. Breakfast is of course the marrow of mornings. The most important thing. You have been fasting all night, lying there inert with your eyelids aflutter, a vegetable, and then you wake up and the only thing your reptilian brain can think is: food. They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I personally do not identify with this. I like to keep the fast going, I don’t want to break it. I like observing my body as it becomes more and more desperate for food. Then, when the first morsel does hit my lips, it becomes that much sweeter.

Of course, many people think Americans are strange for their eggs and bacon. In Costa Rica a common breakfast is rice and beans with eggs. It’s called gallo pinto con huevo and I salivate just thinking about it. In Germany they like gargantuan breakfasts of bread and cheeses and meats and tomatoes. A German sees nothing strange about taking a piece of bread in the morning and putting some tomato and cheese atop it. It’s the most normal thing in the world. Deli meats for breakfast? To each his own. In Chile breakfast is pan amasado, medium quality bread rolls, with butter and jam, accompanied by tea or Nescafé. Most Chileans have never seen real coffee in their lives. They don’t know what it is. For them, coffee lives in a tin in powder form.

What would a perfect morning be for me, then? Spending it with someone I love, preferably with family. Smelling the food as it cooks, tasting the tartness of the first sip of fresh-squeezed orange juice as it touches your lips. Hearing the crackle of bacon as it hits the pan. A perfect morning for me would be filled with light. I don’t know why, but I imagine it’s cold outside. Maybe there’s a fire already lit in the fireplace. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have a wood burning stove. But either way it’s sunny outside. The first rays are rising above the trees and beginning to heat the land. You step outside to see how old it is and you can see your breath and you run back inside where someone asks you, Is it cold? And you say, So cold, and you grab another piece of toast and pile it high with nearly a pound of fresh butter and tuck in like a golden lab who’s just been fed. The conversation, like the air and the whole atmosphere, is light. Morning is not a time for tension or arguing. For some reason, that comes later. In the morning all things are possible but many times that attitude diminishes as the day draws on. In the night sometimes it makes a resurgence, but morning is always when it’s most focused. In the morning our dreams lie just outside the doorstep.

This morning, in Chile, I finally do get hot water for my mate. I sit in my room drinking it alone and looking at the sky outside, which is grey. I still haven’t eaten anything yet, because my new routine dictates I write something everyday before I’m allowed to eat. It might sound horrible to you, but I love it. There is still no time I love more. And this morning, though interrupted by the car alarm and the barking dogs, has still been special. These “nuisances” let me know that the world is alive outside, that a new day has begun. It is a miracle any way you think about it. A morning like any other. A time to begin.

The Kiwis

Residencial Santa Cecilia in Cobquecura, Chile.

I arrived to the town of Cobquecura, one of southern Chile’s more famous surf towns. As soon as I got into town I saw a kid and a girl carrying boards, and I asked the kid where people surfed in the area. He told me there were a couple of spots, all at least several kilometers out of town. This was not what I expected. I expected to get to Cobquecura and for there to be perfect waves right there. I expected it to be sunny and perfect.I expected ease.

I went into an artisan’s shop where they sold products made from wool and other accessories. I was looking for a mate gourd, and had seen one in the window. I talked to the two women working there, and expressed my interest in being able to knit a wool hat. “It’s easy!” one of them said. “Is it? I was learning to knit a couple years ago and all I could do were rectangles.” This was when I was in New Zealand briefly doing a working holiday. I’d sit in the hostel in Dunedin, on the South Island, knitting square after square and talking to a girl named Sarah who eventually hated me because she left some banana bread in the kitchen and I ate all of it. That was a weird time for me. I wasn’t drinking. I wasn’t surfing because of my back. I had a 1988 white Subaru and I’d drive to the beach and sleep in the back of it on top of a door I’d bought at the New Zealand equivalent of Home Depot in the scrap wood pile. It was actually kind of ingenious: a door with a camping pad on top of it provided a perfectly flat and unobtrusive sleeping surface. In the morning I would wake up in this far flung country and get out to pee and gaze out at the ocean, blue, with the green headlands descending into it. New Zealand is a beautiful country and I think more and more about going back.

Speaking of New Zeleand, later that night, after buying a mate gourd from the crafts shop and trying unsuccessfully to find surf, I ran into some Kiwis on the street who were also here to surf and were doing the same thing as me, i.e. stealing Internet from the local cafe. Normally I wouldn’t call this stealing, but this cafe actually charges its customers to use the wifi. Usually this would incense me but the owner is nice and – I think – struggling to make ends meet in this town that’s touristy but not that touristy, so I don’t hold it against him. He said they’re open 365 days a year. Even Christmas? I asked. Yes, he said, it’s the only way.

The Kiwis stealing Internet were looking for dinner and invited me to come along. We went to a place that only had sandwiches and Chilean fast food and I ordered an ave mayo, a sandwich with just chicken and mayonnaise, some French fries, and a glass of wine. This is awful, I said after the first sip of wine, I feel like I’m at church. The wine tasted like communion wine and was chilled and quickly went to my head. The Kiwis all lived or had lived in Australia and were telling me about the work situation there. I don’t think there’s any place on earth, one of them was saying, where you can get paid so much for blue collar jobs. I finished my glass of wine and ordered another. The ave mayo came, an exercise in white. White bread, white meat, white mayonnaise. It was good but not as good as the one I’d had the day before. I don’t understand Chileans with their fast food, especially the completos, the hot dogs with guacamole and tomato. But then again, I suppose fast food in any country is never really good. It bears a semblance to being good, but it’s not actually good. Like so many things in life, it’s a simulation of being good, it’s like fake orange juice that tries to hard to be good when the real thing, the juice from a simple orange, is better and less complicated.

I formed no real connection with the Kiwis. I will most likely never talk to them or see them again. They will probably exist, somewhere out there in the world, just as I will exist, independent of their lives. We will forget we ever met each other, that we shared some drinks and a dinner table one night in Chile back in 2016.

Back at where I was staying Bambolina, the owner’s German shepherd puppy, was playing with a rawhide. The stars were out and I was feeling the two glasses of communion wine. I walked by a fat cat and bent down to pet her and she meowed. Then I went upstairs and tried to get the Internet on my iPhone 4, which I just bought yesterday in Constitucion, to work. I didn’t read. I didn’t really even think. I just mindlessly stared at the screen and drank the tap water that tasted like dirt.

The Thieving Frenchman

Dawn breaks in Mexico City and I realized I’ve found the city with my favorite mornings. It’s so fresh! It’s like Paris mixed with New York mixed with Ohio farm country.

I breakfast with Linda, who tells me not to mention all the food she’s given me in my Air Bnb review. She doesn’t want to feel obligated to give it to other people. I say, “I was just thinking about that, actually.”

Today is a special day because it’s my last night in Mexico City before going to Puerto Escondido, the surfing capital of Mexico. It’s also special because I’m staying in a hotel called Maria Cristina, where my parents stayed when they visited me in 2006 and where my ex-girlfriend and I stayed in 2008. And it’s also special because I’m implementing a new self-improvement strategy today. It’s called “Do Hard Things,” and for an hour I will do the hardest short-term thing that produces the maximum long-term benefit. It’s an idea I stole from a guy named Leo who says the key to “acing life” is to always take the most difficult emotional path, to not be an “emotional weasle.” Which means that for the next hour I’ll pack my bag, clean up a few things, respond to a text message, meditate (!), and then transfer this blog from the notebook to the computer. The meditation will be interesting. I’ve only meditated one other time in my life. I’m not really sure how to do it. My plan is just to sit still, cross-legged, and to try to focus on the present for 20 minutes. At the same time if my thoughts start wandering, if I start thinking about a particularly sick layup I did in 6th grade basketball, or about the time Amy Lager rejected me when I tried to kiss her when I was 16, I won’t chastise myself, I’ll accept it.

The easy decision is the hard decision.  The hard decision is the easy decision. This means that doing hard things, while difficult in the short term, leads to a fuller life in the long term. It will be painful. You might feel like you’re going backwards. You might even offend a few people. But in the end it will lead to a life beyond your wildest dreams.

Anyway, I’m sitting on Linda’s terrace. We just shared mate and she told me about her trip to Peru in the 70’s, how different it was. A white guy who stepped on an indigenous person’s back and no one thought anything of it. A thieving Frenchman. Linda switches between English and Spanish all the time and I respond in whatever language she speaks to me. I don’t want to offend her by responding in Spanish when she speaks English, becuase that offends me. I’m a little scared of her. She’s quite particular. She said to make sure I don’t get any chia seeds in the sponge, because they’re hard to get out. She told me to angle the kettle away from the cupboards so the steam doesn’t hit them. She told me I was cutting the mango wrong.

Mornings are a time of hope and fresh air in Mexico City. The fresh air only happens in the summer though, the rainy season. Yesterday it didn’t rain. It just got cloudy and there was sort of a sunset and you could see the moon! and even a few stars. This is amazing for Mexico City. Mexico City is not a city for astronomical delights. Possibly gastronomical delights. Possibly leafy walks through parks. Possibly sharing a nice breakfast with a woman you’re slightly afraid of, and learning to cut mangos with the grain.