Friday, September 04, 2009

Buenos Aires, Argentina

My Gaucho Initiation

Good grief mother, if you only knew what your daughter was doing some times.

Tonight I shared a yerba mate (pronounced "mah-teh") made by our wonderful hostel guy, Javier,** out of a communal cup (Oh yes, I prayed over it before drinking- I would appreciate your continual prayer for my protection against swine flu and mono though).

Before I can talk about tonight, allow me to take us back to grade 11, a good nine years. I first heard of and saw yerba mate then at the precious age of 16 when it was a big fad with the Ekkerts, the Fasts and the Seels (also known as the 'Menno Mafia' at Richmond Christian Secondary - three families of minimum 6-8 children that all, funnily enough, happened to be cousins. One wing of the clan, (the Ekkert wing, I believe) had grown up in Paraguay so they brought the mate ritual over to Canada and the tradition was rapidly incorporated by the rest as if they too had been gauchos in the pampas all their young lives.

The mennos all did mate, along with a strange dice game that never made any sense to any of us other kids (and by the others I mean myself, my brother, my fellow tsawwassenite Rachel, a few of Rob's carpool buddies and the 40 Asian kids who made up the rest of the student population - a motley crew indeed). They did mate and to me it always looked like some sort of drug. It was what I assumed all the cool kids at the public schools did after finishing their cigarettes and red bull. Cool kids did red bull - I still don't like red bull, but that is beside the point.

Anyways, so that is what I thought of yerba mate. That and I knew that you were supposed to drink it with all the flakes still floating in it - from a cow's horn. It did not look tantalizing. But somehow, nine or ten years down the road, whilst held under Argentina's dazzling spell, I was gripped by the desire to try it. Apparently it is a social thing, so very few places actually sell it, you are just supposed to buy your cow horn cuppy-thingy from the hippies selling in the middle of calle Florida and have a cuppa "whenever you feel like it" (so sayeth Javier). I think everyone just packs it around instead of asking for a venti at Starbucks. I suppose it saves on paper cups.

Jessi and I discussed it and decided to ask Javier, who has quickly become a favourite with us. A funny thing about him - our first couple meetings one or both of us (Jessi and I) were either breaking hostel rules or hostel hardware. We brought home a bottle of that famous Argentinian wine one night and realized as we walked in the door there were fairly conspicuous posters everywhere clearly informing us that alcoholic beverages from outside the hostel were not permitted. But what could we do? We couldn't return the wine, so we decided we should at least plead stupid. I walked up to the desk and there sat our friend. I kind of danced around, wine bottle clearly in hand and tried to explain the situation. His response: "Entonces....? (So then...?) one eyebrow raised. He let me bite my lip nervously for a minute and shift my weight a couple of times until he felt the moment was just right and then softened and informed me it was alright - this time - eyebrow still raised, with a twinkle.

The next time I had an interview with Javier it was to inform him that the toilet was broken and that the face plate that held the flush button on the wall above the toilet had fallen down while Jessi and I were in bed and broken into two pieces. Javier responded with a politely alarmed "OH my Got!" to my spanglish explanation. Needless to say, we needed an experience to repair the friendship. So we asked Javi for the mate hookup. He obliged and gave me a thorough lesson in the guarani tradition.

I was a bit - a LOT - grossed out when he pulled a mate cup off the counter in the hostel kitchen, shook out the mate tea leaves from the last person and rinsed with water and then started preparing my cup. I asked if it needed soap and he looked horrified. If you use soap it gets into the wood that lines the cup. I still thought the silver straw could be disinfected, but he seemed convinced that it was just right, and I didn't want to be rude - story of my life these last 4 months working in the campo - so I took it. It has not been my downfall yet. I informed him that in Canada we are very concerned about mono. He looked askance until I remembered that 'mono' in spanish means monkey, not a terrible flu that lasts for 6 months. I tried to explain the difference. He assured me he didn't have mono (still not sure he was only referring to the monkey type) - and he continued that in fact, one had to get some germs inside in order to be resistant to them.

So i took the cup and drank and hoped for good germs. And, you know, it was quite nice, it is more bitter than regular tea - which I am accustomed to having with milk and sugar. But it seems like it would be a nice half way mark between tea and coffee. Not so strong, but not so mild as tea.

Now, a few interesting tidbits - there is quite the process involved in preparing it, including slanting the mate and pouring the water into the resulting gap, multiple times, allowing it to simmer in each time. Also, if someone offers you mate, you must drink all of it in the cup and not hand it back until you have, or else it is a signal that the mate is bad and could result in hurt feelings on the part of the maker. You know you can pass the cup back when you hear the sound, Javier informed me. The "sound" is that gurgling that a straw in an empty cup makes. I thought it would be something more adventurous but I guess some things are the same in every language, including "all done, that was yummy. Thanks."

** Here is where things become truly strange: When I asked Javier his name I could not help laugh as I walked away. On the last trip I had with Jessi, in Ometepe, Nicaragua, we befriended the guy at the front desk there. Over our four days, we often sat, enjoying the shade by the desk, asking for advice or just chatting to wile away the time. He became an instant friend on the day of our arrival we broke his polite reception exterior with a shocked look of delight that resulted from hearing us foreign girls using Nica slang. He quickly regained his composure when the boss came around the corner, but from then on we had a special bond with him. He looked out for us and we were delighted with him. He was- also named Javier. Coincidence? We think not.