Trip Start Jan 06, 2008
28Trip End Mar 31, 2008
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While there was plenty of evidence of mate (matay) use in Argentina (little sign in Chile), the use of mate in Uruguay is widespread. The sight of Uruguayans, young, old, male, female, walking along while holding the cup or gourd in which the mate resides, with a hot water Thermos flask tucked in the crook of the arm, is so prevalent that I expect a genetic adaptation to occur where babies are born with one arm permanently bent to hold the flask. There are even hot water dispensers in places like gas stations to fill up the flask. Another method of carrying is to have a large leather case, usually oval in cross section, in which there are compartments for the flask, yerba powder (tea bags are available but I have never seen them used), gourds (mate means gourd), bombillas (the metal filter straw used to sip the mate), etc.
It is as if all those people one sees in North America and Europe carrying plastic bottles of water had converted to making and drinking tea as they walked along.
Mate, full name Yerba Mate, is derived from a plant which is a member of the holly family (Ilex Paraguayensis). It was used by the indigenous people prior to the Europeans arriving, but the first large scale cultivation and commercial exploitation occurred in the 18th century in the Jesuit plantation missions which straddled the present day Paraguayan and Argentinean borders.
A minor industry involves the making of mate accessories; mugs from cows hooves, silver, leather, plastic, wood; bombillas in beautifully decorated aluminum, silver, and gold; carved leather carrying cases; and more.
The use of mate is mainly confined to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, parts of Chile, the southern provinces of Brazil, and parts of Bolivia. Bottled mate is available in California. Syria and Lebanon are also significant drinkers as a result of returning immigrants from South America. According to our indispensable guide Wayne Bernhardson, author of Moon guides to Chile and Argentina, and previously, Lonely Planet guide to Argentina, Uruguay & Paraguay, Uruguayans drink twice as much per capita as Argentines. All kinds of medicinal claims are made for it. It is certainly high in caffeine, which may explain its constant use.
In Uruguay there is a national law that prohibits drinking mate while driving, because it has caused many accidents, people getting scalded with hot water while driving. For the same reason, there is also a "forbidden to drink mate" sign in all public transportation buses.