Over 30 years ago I took my first (and still the longest) major bicycle tour along the Lewis and Clark trail with my friends Denny, Bopsy, and Vicky. I learned on that trip, and several other smaller trips, that being on a loaded bicycle and stopping at local stores or cafes is a great way to meet people. Everyone wants to know where you’re going, where you came from, and how long the trip will last. It is really amazing how much people open up to you when you are on the road, and it has always been one of my favorite parts of bicycle touring.
A similar thing happens when you travel to a foreign country with a foreign language. It can be daunting to figure out how to say the smallest of things, and once I manage to get a coherent sentence out, people sometimes assume that I have much more Spanish than I really know, and they enthusiastically respond with a flurry of words that I can’t understand. However, much like pulling up to a cafe on a loaded bicycle, strangers on the street or in the train or bus respond well to simple questions that I ask in Spanish. It is a lot of fun to strike up conversations with complete strangers. They know that I am trying and they want to help. Like the bicycle trips, they always want to know where I’m from, how long I will be traveling, and why I’m visiting. The world can be like a small community if you are open to new and unexpected interactions.
As I was conceiving this post today, Katherine and I went to an area on the edge of Buenos Aires called Tigre. It was lovely and had water canals with boats, many islands, nice shops and restaurants. After a wonderful lunch of “Parrillada para dos” (assorted grilled meat for 2), we walked along the water ways.
People in Buenos Aires and surrounding areas love to drink something called mate. It is a very interesting drink and a cultural activity. Yerba mate leaves are put into a gourd-like cup, hot water is poured on top, and a metal straw is used to drink the liquid (which has caffein, partly explaining its popularity). However, unlike almost anything I know, drinking mate is a social activity. Groups of friends, lovers, or people in the same class in school will share a single mate cup and pass it around to drink. After each sip, a small amount of hot water is added from a thermos, and the cup passed to the next person. It is very foreign to people from the USA, and our first reaction is that this is a great way to pass germs around a group.
Drinking mate is a big deal! Tigre has a museum of mate, complete with a big mate cup and straw in the front. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that on a nice sunny Sunday afternoon in Tigre with many hundreds of people, probably 80-90% of the groups were sharing mate. The key word here is “sharing”. Groups of 2-6 or so were sitting around, with one cup, one straw, one thermos, and a supply of yerba to replenish the stock. It is community, culture, and an afternoon pick-me-up all in one activity.
The students in my class at the university all drink mate. We have a 4 hour class each day with a break about half way through. I have shared mate with them a few times now and have asked them “aren’t you worried about getting sick?”, which they answer “no, if a person is sick, he or she doesn’t share” or “it will boost your immunity to disease that is circulating” or “I’ve drunk mate for all of my life since I was 4 years old and never gotten sick”. There are some definite mate rules: you don’t need to drink it if you don’t want to or don’t like it; you should not drink when you think you are sick. It would be very rude, however, to decline a mate in a small group of friends but them pull out your own cup to enjoy yourself. It just isn’t done that way.
I’m still slightly squeamish about sharing mate, but I’m doing it and am enjoying partaking in a group activity that is ancient and very important. I’m also still slightly shy about just walking up to strangers on the street and asking them directions or help in broken Spanish, but I’m doing it and having some lovely conversations and improving my language skills. During my mate drinking time with the students, they also teach me a lot of Spanish. These social interactions are the best part of travel!