The air in Buenos Aires is crisp that summer morning in October 2013, faintly chill on my eyelashes at 17 Celsius. Even at 8 a.m., the upmarket Palermo area I saunter through buzzes with life. A giant street mural of Che Guevara looms over me, his combat fatigues blazing protest in oranges and reds. On the paving stones, a monochrome circle bids passersby to Hug Here. I do a 180-degree turn when a Javier Bardem lookalike, hunkier than the Spanish screen star, lopes by with 20 pedigreed dogs on leashes, his cool matching their canine calm.
It is just the fourth day of my solo-by-choice month in Argentina. I steer myself to the quirky Tealosophy boutique at the chic Galeria Promenade in Recoleta, lined with lush ferns to the soundtrack of catwalk-chic feet. Early for a blind date, I gaze at designer glass carafes, run my fingertips through burnished rose petals tossed through white tea. I caress a hand-painted porcelain teapot, teeming with silk-robed warlords and oriental beauties petting leonine-maned Foo dogs. But its peso price tag cramps my style.
Eyeing floral tea caddies, my thoughts tango with a Great Argentinian Mystery. How can I solve it with my almost non-existent Spanish? Como?
My mind rewinds to October 17, when a home truth snaps me awake under a silky duvet. For long minutes, I have no idea of where I am. Or who I am, either. I spy a natty red strolley, its contents tumbling pell-mell, in the light-dappled room. My new Samsung smartphone tells me it is 8.30 a.m. But Buenos Aires time, not Bangalore time.
I am at least 14,976 km. away from home, after 26-plus airborne hours with Qatar Airways. Peeping through the blinds, I see a little courtyard, a bolted gate. Beyond the bedroom door, I hear the muted voices of the loveable Argentinian family I am Couchsurfing with. For, on my super-tight budget, local hosts and youth hostels are my best choices for a long wander through South America, where I know exactly three people in real time.
Perky as a Labrador at daybreak, I brush the fur from my teeth, the sleep from my eyes. In the apple green dining room, I find the buxom, sweet-natured mother Anabel (in this post, names have been changed to protect identities). Her sunny smile dispels my homesickness. She holds out a calabash with Mayan designs, a gleaming metal straw in it. She asks, ‘Mate?’ (mah-tay in Spanish). It is a word – and a brew – that trail me through Argentina.
I hesitate. Anabel gently stirs the leaves and liquid in the calabash. She drinks deep, pours in hot water, offers me the shared straw again. I take a sip. Is it tisane? Or a floral decoction? It evokes wood smoke, weak coffee, perhaps hay. By the fifth sip, my palate wanders to green tea, even a hint of tobacco. This warm mate brew, I learn, is Argentina’s national drink; a 24/7 caffeinated anti-oxidant, with less tannin than tea, packed with 24 vitamins and minerals.
The mate gourd peppers my early experiences in Buenos Aires. I observe still-protesting veterans of the 1982 Malvinas war (don’t you dare say the Falklands!) topping up their calabashes from thermos flasks at the historic Plaza de Mayo, their limbs often maimed, their anger undiminished behind rheumy eyes. A copper-haired artist proffers his mate graciously amidst stacked, turpentine-scented oil paintings. I do not commit the faux pas of declining.
At Tealosophy, my thoughts backtrack to signing up on the Couchsurfing site months ago. I rate my odds of finding hosts across South America as slim. What are my chances, with salt-and-pepper hair, a freckle-faced goofy grin, et al, when the hospitality exchange seems a backpackers’ haven? But offers from 21 hosts in the Argentinian capital make my doubts vanish. I choose the charming family with three daughters as first base because of their irresistible welcome.
Today, I am meeting Lennie, one of the hosts I declined. A voice from close to the ceiling breaks into my reverie, ‘Are you from India? I am Leonardo. Ummmm, Lennie.’ Originally from Patagonia, the 22-year-old is a pharmacology student at university. Just under 1.8 metres tall, his twinkling sea-blue eyes are in sync with strawberry-blonde Rastafarian locks.
At the arcade’s café, Lennie reaches for his Cortito con Leche-espresso to ease awake after a night of bartending for pin money as I sip lemon tea. He is game to share mate data to test his own English, learnt as a child in Birmingham.
‘Are all Argentinians brought up with mate?’
“Pretty much, si, si,’ he responds, pulling out a calabash in pale gold from his backpack. ‘I think Mama drank litres of mate when I was in her belly. I grew up loving it…’
I wait for more. “We Argentines love our mate,’ he chuckles, ‘so do folks in Uruguay, Paraguay, southern Chile, maybe south Bolivia. It is brewed from leaves of the yerba mate plant. Latin name? Hmmmm… Ilex paraguariensis.’
Over the next two hours, the air between us ripples with camaraderie. Lennie mimes his suit-clad father priming a calabash every morning as the cebador, who prepares the brew for social gatherings. The yerba mate leaves are packed in gently, covered with cool water. The fine holes at the flared tip of the straw are placed to strain out large particles. When topped with hot – but not boiling – water, the first mate del zonzo or fool’s brew is always for the cebador. He drinks it through – is it too cold? too bitter? – then offers the next mate to the person on his right. And so the gourd passes around the family, welcoming visitors into the pack. Dawdlers in the circle are chided gently (no es un micrófono/ it’s not a microphone), urged to drink up and pass the calabash on.
The calabash is made of the porongo or cabaca fruit, Lennie says, ‘My bombilla straw is of alpaca or nickel silver. But my Abuela had one of pure silver all her life till 81. My grandmother was precious, like her bombilla…’
Consulting a Spanish-English dictionary, he holds up his gourd, ‘We usually call this a guampa. Or just mate, like the infusion. Rarely would an Argentinian drink their mate from a cup. Only from this gourd.’ With pride, he adds, ‘We travel the world with our guampa.’
Chewing on his lower lip, Lennie delves into the tradition: ‘When I was eight, I asked Abuela about its origins. The indigenous Guarani people of southern Brazil first grew yerba mate – and drank it. The Spanish colonizers of Paraguay took to it in the late 16th century. Soon, Paraguay earned more from yerba mate than from tobacco, cotton or beef. So did the local Jesuit missions in Argentina, till they were expelled. The economy never quite recovered from the Paraguayan war of 1864….’
He is not done yet. ‘By the 1930s, when Brazil became a major coffee grower, Argentina revived the former Jesuit plantations in the northeastern Misiones province to claim top spot for yerba mate.’
Juggling his guampa between his palms, Lennie muses, ‘Who knows if the gauchos or cowboys of the pampas drank mate or not?’
‘No social occasion in Argentina is complete without mate,’ he says. ‘When I first saw my girlfriend Lisette at college, I felt weak at the knees. She had an aura about her. Propelled by love at first sight, I offered her my guampa. Lisette sipped through my bombilla, her eyes on mine. It was my … my declaration of love.’
Back in Bangalore in 2016, my fingertips trace the curvilinear patterns on my guampa. As I inhale its earthy aroma, I am transported to Argentina in a trice. To warm, wraparound Latin hugs. To the perfect barbeque off the family asado grill. To a grizzled stranger on a boat to the Perito Moreno glacier amidst giant ice floes, who shows me how to prep a perfect guampa. To heart-searing stories of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, who demonstrated tirelessly to protest against the 30,000 young people who ‘vanished’ under the military junta between 1976- 1983, their spirits buoyed by mate even as their weary voices cracked through the long days, the tormented years.
Beyond social rites, beyond stranger turf than I ever imagined, my guampa brings Argentina home to me as a comfort zone. All I need to reaffirm the belonging is another sip of mate, even if I am continents away today.
Featured illustration by Tasneem Amiruddin