Mate: Steeping into Chilean Culture

Alzar School | 23.02.22

In class the other day, a student asked me if I was drinking soaked oregano through a straw. I was initially confused, but quickly realized that her question was not nearly as ludicrous as it seemed. I was sipping yerba mate, a tea infusion enthusiastically enjoyed by residents of southern Chile and many Alzar School faculty. Sage green shredded leaves are placed in a small cup or gourd, covered with hot (but not boiling) water, and consumed through a filtered straw called a bombilla. Traditional mate has a bitter taste that calls to mind cut grass rather than a pizza sauce spice, but I certainly understood mistaking my drink for oregano.

Enjoying mate overlooking Lago Azul in Chile.

Like most cultural practices, mate carries a much deeper significance than the surface might suggest. Mate is traditionally enjoyed in intimate groups, with a servidor refilling and passing the mate gourd around the circle, making eye contact with each recipient. Drinkers remain in the circle, typically passing the cup back and forth with their right hand until the mate becomes washed (lavado), then go on along with their day. In the circle, subtle phrases indicate to the servidor if the herb is spent, if the water is too hot, or is too cold. The culture has made obvious adaptations to the COVID era, despite early rumors (now firmly disproven) in Argentina that yerba mate naturally disinfected the virus. It’s an invitation to sit down and take a break from the day’s activities: to be, as one might hear in Chile, mas tranquilo.

My students may find my choice of caffeine strange right now, but if history is a guide, it won’t be long before they follow suit: each semester, the proliferation of bombillas and thermoses is one of the surest signs that the student group has begun to fully embrace their time in Chile. Some of their mate habits may stem from the lack of coffee available in Coyhaique, but most students are eager to learn the rituals and history of the drink. My favorite point in the (pre-COVID) semester is when students, noticing that I seem overly harried, ask me to sit down and enjoy some mate together. It’s the perfect encapsulation of what Alzar is doing in Chile: students learn to embrace elements of a new culture, and apply those lessons, in small but meaningful ways, to their daily lives. 

About the Author: John Begneston teaches English at Alzar School and, as this post suggests, is often seen with a cup of mate in hand.