Imagine the scene: the sun is blazing overhead and tiny beads of perspiration have begun to form on your forehead and upper lip. You're on the beach in Necochea, surrounded by a veritable sea of sunbathers and colorful beach umbrellas. You conclude after a few minutes that you could really use some sort of liquid refreshment, so you saunter over to the snack bar to peruse the offerings. Ah, there's nothing more thirst-quenching on a scorching summer's day than some...hot water? Yep, that's what the sign says. Agua caliente $1.
Though you may be left scratching your head, any Argentine worth his salt would know exactly what to do with that hot water: prepare mate [pronounced mah-tay]. Argentines never need much of an excuse to drink their beloved infusion, which is often compared to an herbal or green tea.
When Daniel and I took a trip to Bariloche last year, I would have liked a peso every time one of the guides mentioned: "X es un hermoso lugar y además es un lugar perfecto para tomar mate." [X is a gorgeous place, and it's also a perfect spot to drink mate]. While relaxing, either alone or with friends, no matter when or where, mate is the beverage of choice for just about every Argentine.
Even my cat Cocoa drinks mate now that he's living here in Argentina:
Take a look at this brief video clip that does a great job of explaining what mate is, how it's cultivated, and its importance in Argentine culture.
Many people raised outside the tradition of mate don't really care for the taste, which is normally described as "green," herbal or bitter. Frankly, it's not my favorite. My stepdad, however, got hooked on mate after he first tried it back in October, and now he drinks it on the job with his co-worker.
Although I don't particularly enjoy the taste, what I do appreciate about mate is its significance as a ritual and the way it brings people together. The ritual of preparing mate is comforting in and of itself, and the joy of sharing it with others strengthens bonds. An invitation to share mate is considered an honor and a sign of friendship. It also offers something to do to pass the time, especially when you're by yourself. As Daniel's aunt once put it, "When you're alone, mate is your friend—it keeps you company."
So, if you're sitting at home thinking that your taste buds could use a little high adventure, perhaps you'll consider trying mate. Like everything else on the planet, you can buy some on Amazon.com: click here or here to check it out. I, for one, will stick with my iced tea.
[Update 1/9/11: I now drink mate on the beach, too. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.]