Okay, so Black Rock Desert is a far cry from the Sahara, but it’s just as poetic.
Early in the week we decided to take a spin in our art cars, and found ourselves at the Mate Lounge. They had a nice mid-sized dome covered in white tarp, with couches, carpeting, and all the accoutrements for making yerba mate in the traditional manner. Our hosts explained how mate is a very social thing in South America – friends share cups, adding hot water to the cup after each drink and passing it with the straw pointed toward the recipient.
“Mate” actually means “gourd,” which is the typical vessel in which is it served. (We were using enamel camp mugs, but it didn’t take the fun out of it one bit.) The straw is called a bombilla, and has filtering holes in the wide bottom to allow the liquid to come up without the leaves. My campmates passed the cup around, each time adding enough hot water to reach the top of the leaves. When you have had enough and don’t wish to have it passed to you again, you say “gracias.”
It’s definitely a stimulant, but without the associated insomnia or irritability of caffeine, and it has a lot of health benefits attributed to the drink, including improving circulation, easing digestive problems, and acting as a vasodilator and a diuretic. It’s also said to help with altitude sickness, which people often get when hiking and climbing in the South American mountain ranges.
I explained to our host that mate isn’t really that good for me as it makes me jittery and also seems to trigger my migraines, so he pulled out a box of Mate Coca teabags – which contain leaves from the coca plant. While it is still a non-caffeinated stimulant, it has much milder effects. It had a rich, smooth, green flavor, and it was absolutely perfect for a hot, dry afternoon. I didn’t suffer any migraines during my entire vacation in spite of this (and the few cups of coffee that got me through the hard work of setting up and tearing down our camp).
Unfortunately, I don’t think you can get mate coca in the United States. He had carried it with him from South America in order to bring it to the playa. I think we’ll definitely try to find some online (along with the gourds and bombillas, which are readily available on ebay and in some of our local markets). I think they’re worth having in my collection.
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