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Mate: A social phenomenon

A Modern Mate Setup
A Modern Mate Setup
When Rafa Royett moved to Argentina in 2011, mate was not his cup of tea. A native of Colombia, one of the world's top 5 coffee-producing nations, he spent his first year in Argentina maintaining a safe distance from the slightly pungent herbal drink. He might politely take a sip if offered, but was far from adopting the typical Argentine breakfast of mate and cookies. Even though he did not develop a taste for it early on, mate was everywhere. In grocery stores people strolled the aisles with a mate gourd in one hand and a thermos of hot water under their arms; movie theaters offered snack combinations with mate and crackers; bus drivers refilled their mate gourds with a special hot water tanks installed in their vehicles; and while stopping for gas, customers could refill both their tanks and their thermoses to enjoy mate on the road. Rafa was shocked to learn that in Argentine classrooms, it was perfectly normal for students to share mate with their teachers during lessons. The professor would simply take a sip, hand it back, and continue teaching. He says this would never happen in Colombia. When he was in school he wasn't even allowed to drink water in class. According to Rafa, his was not an isolated case - it is common for foreigners not to take to South America's "drink of friendship" right away. He admits that it is an acquired taste. "The first time I tried it - I believe it's the same for most people, which means not good - I didn't like it. It's really bitter and it's a strong flavor. It's common not to like it the first several times, but you slowly get to appreciate the taste," Rafa said. During his second year in Argentina, Rafa finally gave in. He bought his own "mate kit," consisting of a dry, hollowed-out gourd; a bombilla, a metal straw with a strainer at the bottom and a flat drinking tip; the yerba mate itself; a thermos for hot water; and a bag to carry it all in. "It's comparable to drinking coffee, but you will never see anyone walking around with coffee cups and beans," Rafa jokes. He said no grocery trip was complete without at least one package of mate. He never thought twice about it because it was so cheap - $2 USD for half a pound. He also noted that while many grocery items, such as breakfast cereal, lacked variety, he could always find dozens of different types of mate, cookies and crackers. Pretty soon Rafa was drinking 1-3 liters of mate daily. He used it both to kick-start his morning and wind down in the late afternoon. But what Rafa enjoyed most was not so much the routine or the flavor of the drink, but the social implications associated with it. When he found himself isolated in social situations, mate was his icebreaker. "Because I'm Colombian people don't think I drink mate. When they find out I do they open up more," Rafa said. Now that Rafa is back in Colombia, his friends and family tease him for being an avid mate drinker. Undeterred, he still uses his mate kit every day and fondly recalls the evenings he spent watching soccer and preparing mate with his roommate in Argentina.