There is a toasty aroma in the air. A strong yet delicate fragrance with a hint of fresh grass, tinged with roasted nuts. This smell, unknown to my olfactory receptors for most of my life, was now a familiar one. The wind is carrying it from the giant rolling ovens that are drying the fresh yerba leaves, brought in from the fields only minutes ago. The process, rudimentary, is still the same one as 50 years, ago. The only difference is the science of time. Branches with the leaves still attached, are carried on a moving mat and dropped in a rolling cylinder where the open mouth of a scorching furnace tumbles them across to safety. The secret lies in the timing. Years of minute observations, trials and errors, has led to the perfect equation, genius of physics and math, a precise number of seconds, spent under a precise temperature, to give the perfect roast. The result is a partially dried leave, full of flavors and healthy benefits, ready to be crushed and packed.
I was back at Las Marias, wrapping up a 3-month assignment. Sitting on the front porch of La Majoria (main house) I was doing a ritual that had now become daily routine: pour loose yerba into a gourd, cover the top with my hand, turn the gourd upside down and shake it several times. The goal is to bring to the surface the “Polvo” (powder). Then pour water on one side, not too much, just enough to soak the leaves and keep the other side dry. As an old man said to me once: “You are not simply pouring water, you are feeding the yerba so that it can breathe”. After a couple of minutes, sip the water through the Bombilla (straw). Refill and sip. Repeat.
Mate is more than a drink. Comparing it to tea or coffee would be more than an understatement, it would be an insult. It is more like wine. It is a lifestyle statement. One that says that time and relationships matter. One that says that speed and singularity are not a priority. It is a ritual that invites for sharing and trust. A reminder from the Native Indians passing the pipe around, as a sign of welcome and humility. It is a ceremony that invites strangers and solidifies friendships. In Argentina, it is almost a religion and when offered to you, it is impossible to refuse.
Together with renown photographer Jasmine Rossi, based in Buenos Aires, our assignment was to travel to the birthplace of Mate, where it is grown, more precisely to the northern provinces of Misiones and Corrientes, and find out more about this cultural phenomenon. We decided to call our trip, the Mate Expedition!
The result is now available online: 20 interviews, 4 diaries and hundreds of photos. Sit back, relax and let the people from Argentina tell you a story, their story. In our ever faster society, Mate is an antidote. It is a reminder that life is more than running after our next achievement. It is an effortless social meditation that emphasizes on our need for interaction. It is a pause, a long one, that forces you to absorb the beauty that surrounds you. One that forces you to listen and to watch. Mate is not only a celebration of time and friendship, but it is a tribute to Life. Enjoy!