Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Herb.

Ahhhhhhh, mate(pronounced MAH-tay), the bitter, buzz-giving traditional tea of the southern parts of South America.  Long before I ever came to Argentina, I was turned onto mate and its magical powers by a friend and I've never looked back.  Most Americans have no clue what the stuff is and have always looked at me quite strangely seeing me drink what looks like dirty soup through what looks like a pipe.  Be ignorant no longer friends and family!  I will open your minds!  

Officially referred to as Yerba Mate, mate is all consuming in the southern parts of Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, and of course Argentina.  Mate is consumed at all hours of the day, sometimes alone, but often times shared with friends and family.  Mate is a significant part of the daily culture and is consumed in every possible place imaginable; from park benches, to street markets, while driving, soccer players sip it on the sidelines and school children have even been seen toting their gourds and hugging thermoses on field trips.  

 Mate is consumed by putting the loose herb/tea in a small "cup" which is usually made of wood or is a hollowed out gourd, elaborated with decorations, or in this case, simply covered with a metal outer casing.  This "cup" is actually the mate, the tea is the yerba(herb).  After pouring hot(but not boiling!)water over the yerba, it is sipped through a filter straw called a bombilla.  The bombilla obviously allows the passage of only the brewed tea and not the chunks of leaves and stems that remain in the gourd.  Yerba mate is a tea that can be brewed time and time again, continuously pumping out flavor and the famous "spaced-out" mate buzz that keeps this society fueled.  Thus, accompanied by a thermos filled with hot water to refill the gourd over and over again. 
Mates and bombillas are for sale on nearly every street corner, every souvenir shop, every market.  All shapes, sizes, and decorations imaginable.  
Wow, that's quite the selection of mates.  And at the black market exchange rate of 10/1 Argentine peso to US dollar, that is also quite the bargain!  Mate and bombilla for all!

Though I find supermarkets to be disgusting places and avoid shopping at them in favor of small local and farmers markets, I could not resist snapping this photo of the yerba mate section of a super market in Buenos Aires.  It is larger than the coffee section, and likely higher quality than the crap coffee that Argentines drink.
A common sight in the streets, and I don't mean just trash disposed of in the streets.  Upon close inspection, one can see that there is used yerba dumped right on top of the trash that someone already left in the street.  Hey, it's natural, right?  I really see this everywhere in the city, piles of used yerba disposed of on sidewalks.  It beats dog shit any day.
Here we see a young Argentine doing what they do best, sip mate on the sidewalk.  Job?  Who needs a job?  
Remember what I said about using hot, but not boiling water?  Well that is much more of a concern among mate drinkers than you can imagine.  The South Americans are so nutso about not burning the yerba that there are even counter top water heaters with a "mate" setting.  Minimum, mate, maximum, a guarantee you will not burn your herb(I couldn't resist the pun).  Boiling water not only burns the mouth and esophagus of the drinker when it is consumed, but it is too hot for the yerba and actually damages the multiple health properties that the yerba contains.  Yerba mate is quite a healthful drink, and though it contains a compound very similar to caffeine, it also contains many vitamins and minerals.  Mate is an alkaline pH, which makes it much healthier and easier to consume in place of acidic coffee as well.  Any one that has ever tried mate has also likely experienced the "high" similar to smoking pot that lasts for maybe twenty or thirty minutes.  This buzz usually doesn't last if one continues to drink mate everyday, but is always fun for first timers.  Then they're hooked, always looking for a high that was as good as the first time. . .  
They love the herb so much, they get high and paint murals in the street.  When I say it's everywhere, I literally mean it.  Put that in your gourd and sip it!

Friday, May 3, 2013

End of the Earth.

It's been over a month since I left the stinky confines of Buenos Aires and traveled to the end of the Earth for ten days of fresh air and natural beauty in the famously dramatic landscapes of Patagonia at the furthest end of the continent of South America.  Little did I know the profound effect it would have on the deepest parts of my being as I realized I was in the most beautiful place I have ever been; my own personal paradise.  I found myself unable to express in words the beauty that surrounded me in the towns and mountains I visited.  These photos taken with my crappy little digital camera certainly do no justice to how wonderful of a place Patagonia is, but as the famous saying goes "A picture is worth a thousand words".  In this case, these pictures are only a few of what I took in order to replace the loss for words I experienced in this most stunning of landscapes that the planet is hiding in its southernmost reaches.
It's no mystery that the Patagonian Andes are full of enormous glaciers.  Yes people, I, a hater of all things snow and cold, willingly visited a 2.5 mile wide glacier and watched pieces of ice the size of a house break and fall into the water as this tremendous river of ice advances at a snails pace.  The resounding "BOOM" that echoed throughout the mountain sides as the pieces of ice broke and fell was enough to send chills through my body even on the warmest of Patagonian days.
There is a quality to the sky in Patagonia that is difficult to describe.  The clouds were the lowest and closest to the land I've ever seen.  The sky literally sits right on top of you; at times I felt I could reach up and touch the clouds.  It was as though the sky hugs the earth, hanging on as close as it can in order not to fall off the end of the planet into outer space.
Typical Patagonian landscape: seemingly endless shrubby and grassy rolling hills, lonely roads, whilst in the distance loom the most daunting and dramatic of Andean peaks, beckoning all dreamers.
If El Chaltén is in this direction, I'm there!  Could this be any more gorgeous?
It is the texture of the landscape that I found to be so unbelievable, so otherworldly.  The way in which the grasses and shrubs grow, the texture of the rocks and hills, the meandering streams slowly fed by enormous glaciers, the trees changing in autumn with their wind-whipped branches.  I didn't know that texture of landscape is something I would ever be so enamored with.  This is where the lack of words begins to overcome me and sheer emotion consumes me. . . 
Nothing says "End of the Earth" quite like a rusted out Dodge and a lonely power line.
Patagonia is known for its ever-changing weather, which on this day slightly obscured my view of the famous Fitz Roy peak.  It's not as though it takes away from the beauty in any way and, in fact, adds to the mystery of what it must be like up there.
 Seriously?  Kill me now, I'm already in heaven.