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Passing the Gourd

January 10, 2007

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I can’t think of a better way to start here than by writing about a gift. This Christmas I received my very own mate (a gourd used for drinking yerba mate) and bombilla (a metal straw/filter used to drink from the gourd) — from none other than Colleen, the original Gongfu Girl. (See her earlier posts about yerba mate, Tea in the Sahara with you … and Yerba Mate (Mate Latte).)

I’ve been intrigued by yerba mate ever since I first read Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch many years ago. It’s a wonderful novel about life in ex-patriate Paris and Argentina — the kind of novel that is so well written that you want climb inside its world. For Cortazar, drinking yerba mate was both a means of maintaining his ties to the Argentinian community and a potent stimulus for the more solitary pursuit of writing.

Mate and bombillaWhen I read Hopscotch, I was working in a health food store in New Haven, Connecticut. I was in charge of ordering herbs in bulk, and one of the herbs we sold was yerba mate — which had been a complete mystery until Cortazar explained it to me. I got into the habit of drinking mugs of bitter yerba mate tea while working, and the taste of yerba mate still brings back that time in my mind.

Americans tend to drink their tea alone, by the cup, but as we all know tea drinking is, in many parts of the world, a highly sociable practice. While you can drink yerba mate by yourself, the gourd is really intended to be shared among a circle of friends.

I spent New Year’s Eve with my own circle of friends, and early in the evening we passed around my gourd, taking turns sipping on the bombilla. Several people hadn’t tried yerba mate before, and were a bit put off by its strong, bitter flavor — which does get less intense as the herb is soaked again and again in hot water. In many ways yerba mate is a perfect drink for this kind of celebration — it stimulates the mind and encourages conversation, and serves as a good ice-breaker in the early stages of a party.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to make more time in my life for shared cups of tea and relaxed conversation, and I am also hoping to become more familiar with our local tea rooms and to learn more about tea traditions and ceremonies in the company of friends. I am also very excited about writing for Gongfu Girl and look forward to sharing my tea experiences with other tea lovers.

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