Uruguay’s addiction: a sacred green substance
Uncountable times I have been stopped at airports all around the world and interrogated by merciless immigration officers who suspect they are in the presence of a vicious and sneaky criminal. So have many of my fellow countryman and woman. We are usually escorted to interrogation rooms, intimidated, obliged to empty our bags and demanded explanations.
The reason is a suspicious green substance we Uruguayans always carry around in our luggage (usually by the kilos), and I’m not talking about cannabis, recently legalized in this country, that’s another story. I’m talking about Yerba Mate. This herb (which does resemble cannabis in its aspect) is sacred and worshipped in this part of the world. It constitutes a strong part of our identity and we just can’t live without it.
Mate is by far the most typical and consumed beverage in Uruguay. Mate consumption is a firmly established tradition that has its roots deeply embedded in our DNA. Although it is consumed in other parts of the region (mainly Argentina, Paraguay and south Brazil) and also, bizarrely, in other random places like Syria, in Uruguay it reaches a whole new level. We Uruguayans are completely and obsessively Mate dependent.
Mate, an infusion like beverage, which was originally drunken by the Guarani (the pre-Colombian indigenous populations that originally inhabited these lands), basically consists of filling a calabash gourd (known as mate) with dried and grinded Ilex Paraguariensis leaves (know as yerba mate). So we have Mate the beverage, Mate the cup and Yerba Mate the substance. Confusing, I know. Then we stick a silver straw in the equation (called bombilla), we pour very hot water, start sucking, and the ritual begins. Maybe it’s easier to watch how it’s done:
Mate is an extension of the arms of Uruguayans. You can see people of all sorts, ages and characteristics carrying it around under their arms. Businessman and construction workers; high school adolescents and retired grandparents; in parks and shopping centres; it’s all the same. Mate is an inseparable part of our daily lives, an essential component of social interactions and also a warm gesture to greet a friend or a relative. It has many healthy properties and is also a powerful stimulant, due to high quantities of caffeine. This makes it a perfect companion for work and study.
If you ever visit Uruguay you will certainly be surprised by the amount and variety of Mate drinkers you will encounter around its cities. Some visitors can’t stand its bitterness, but if you manage to victoriously overcome this initial rejection and reach the point of enjoying it, you will rapidly become a Mate addict like all of us and contribute to spread the word of this wonderful tradition all over the world.