Montevideo: Yerba Mate Man

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Your typical mate calabash gourd

Without using violent facial expressions, it’s difficult to describe mate. To those who have never hit up this part of the world, that’s not me being overly-familiar; yerba mate – or just ‘mate’ (pronounced mat-ay) – is the name of an unusual hot beverage that Argentinians drink like it’s going out of fashion, and that Uruguayans drink like their lives depend on it. It’s a bit like a sort of strange grassy tea, but if my memory serves me correctly (I’m currently on a bus, on which the advertised wi-fi is predictably broken), it’s not actually tea. I’m glad I could be of such help. In fact, until I look it up, it’s stuck in a state of quantum superposition – it’s Schrödinger’s Mate, who sounds like a pretty cool guy.

Basically, to explain it like an idiot, you get a little pot thing and cram it full of mate, then pour hot water over it and drink it from the bottom up using a metal straw that has a built-in filter (you do not want that stuff getting in your mouth). You get a couple of mouthfuls per helping, then refill and repeat until you’ve had enough, or until the copious amount of caffeine involved gives you a heart attack. Walking around Montevideo, every street corner, every doorway, every park bench and every bus stop will have someone sat with a bunch of mate and a thermos flask, all day every day – it’s like a strange liquid religion over here. So I thought, when in Rome, do as the Uruguayans do, and get in on the action. However, I was warned beforehand that it is ‘a little bitter’. This is what I would classify as an understatement. It has absolutely no natural sweetness, and really tastes like… well, a plant. I’m not a connoisseur on the palatable properties of hay, but I imagine if you took some, ground it up and mixed it with a couple of paracetemol tablets, you’d get a flavour not dissimilar to mate. However, after a couple of rounds of forcing myself to drink it (for fear of looking like a social outcast), I now wake up in the morning craving its unrestrained chlorophyll, spend most of my waking hours combing the barrios of Montevideo looking for my next fix, and go to sleep wishing its bitter embrace would carry me to the land of dreams. I am now a yerba mate man. Or once I get to Chile in two days maybe I’ll forget it ever existed.

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A pleasant boat ride

Heading back to Buenos Aires today, which is something I’m dreading less than I expected I would. Uruguay is an awesome little country, and I’ve enjoyed my five days in Montevideo more than the previous 15 in Buenos Aires, but I’m willing to admit there must be more to BA that I’m missing. So I’m heading back – just for 48 hours – to see what more I can make of it, so I guess it may get a little messy.

Notable moments of the last couple of days in Uruguay include eating a late-night dinner and drinking Tannat on a rooftop overlooking the city, being recruited to film some fellow travellers busking on a cross-town bus, attempting to swim in the River Plate and ending up covered in various unbecoming substances, and going to see some live music with a couple of friends and spending large portions of the evening engaging in futile battle with an insurmountable army of mosquitoes and buying plastic cups of beer from a man who’d crafted a makeshift bar out of a wooden crate. Highlight of the night – other than Julian and Katrina’s excellent set (hi guys if you’re reading) – is a friend and fellow audience member suddenly slapping themselves in the face mid-song in a misjudged attempt to kill a mosquito. A moment I won’t forget in a hurry (also hi if you’re reading, you know who you are).

Onwards (or backwards) to Buenos Aires. Let’s give it one more go.

Gabe

(P.S. no photos this time as I am using the world’s worst internet connection. Sorry.)

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