It is always curious for me to observe what yerba mate theme will naturally reveal itself for discussion from week to week… In recent days, germs have popped up to be addressed. Specifically, germs in relation to the ancient yerba mate tradition of sharing a straw — a bombilla — between friends… and strangers.
For those unaware, the classic method of drinking yerba mate found throughout Paraquay, Argentina, Brazil and various other parts of South America is a single gourd and bombilla shared between numerous people. The gourd is packed with yerba and the straw strategically positioned inside it. The gourd is partially filled with hot water from a thermos — the other piece of apparatus to complete this picture — and after a few moments of infusion time, the first person drinks the entire liquid content of the gourd. The yerba is, again, steeped with water and passed onto the next person who drinks this entire second mate infusion. And so it continues around and around the circle…
Culturally, this practice of sharing a straw is considered “normal”. We — your Bombisheros –– considered it fairly normal too; Chris grew up with the tradition in his family home and James and I independently had the experience of being invited into native yerba mate circles as complete strangers — as a foreigner in a strange land, it felt like the ultimate embrace and moment of acceptance by the locals. The first sign that it was not so normal came at an event in Australia where, all of a sudden, we were faced with hygiene and safely standards. We responded by purchasing alcohol wipes but prayed we wouldn’t have to use them as they tasted horrible. What I noticed, however, during this yerba mate workshop with a group of people new to this tradition, there was a distinct discomfort receiving the end of a straw that a stranger’s lips had occupied. Some didn’t wipe, many did.
Months passed and the germ factor did not resurface until recently when I was chatting with a local barista. On the topic of yerba mate he says to me, ‘but what about the straw?’ confused, I repeat, ‘What about the straw?’ ‘Well, it’s in everyone’s mouth…’ He tells me about his experience at a Brazilian gathering where there were more than a dozen people – one or two of which he knew personally – sharing the same vessel. Through his eyes, people were going to get sick. It was not safe. It made me reflect on the many people in my life who would also share this perception.
So, why then, is it so “normal” for a native to share their bombilla with a complete stranger?
Our friend Victoria, from Paraguayan origins, responds…
“For us, sharing this is the greatest privilege. It is a brotherhood thing… it is more important for us, the intention behind the sharing, than what you are putting in your mouth. For us, the feeling that you put out is more important – it is what comes out of the heart that is more important – because this is a heart medicine for us. For us, it is more important to share our heart, our time, hold space for each other, than to be worried about what we are going to catch from each other…”
What I obverse here is the experience of brother or sisterhood. In Australian/Western culture we may possibly share this bond with friends and family but it doesn’t generally extend to wider population groups – neighbourhoods, work hubs etc. So I wonder if the germ factor has more to do with our boundaries around community rather than contagious bugs? With whom are we willing to exchange spit with? How comfortable does it feel to share a straw with your son or daughter? With a friend? A work colleague? A complete stranger?
The other experience that I observe from Victoria’s sharing is the idea that yerba mate is a heart medicine. So it is not just a tea that is being shared, rather, there is the experience of connecting to the spirit of the plant, and the spirit of the plant facilitating greater connection with each other. Victoria says,
‘It takes you to a place of deep introspection and you are sharing a thought, or your heart — it’s like it ignites something within you…”
Here, there is a willingness to be open with both friends and complete strangers in the yerba mate circle. The “medicine” facilitates this. There is almost the expectation that when yerba mate is shared, the participants will share something of their hearts.
Comparing the cultural differences here is not to say that one way is better than the other way, or that being germ conscious is wrong or excludes one from the experience of drinking yerba mate. Afterall, there is always teapot mate or personal gourds to embrace. It is curious, however, to feel the differences in perception. And to ask ourselves where our extension of brother and sisterhood begin and end?
I drink yerba mate daily, and this is mostly alone. However, regardless of whether I am with people or not I trust the medicine of this plant as a heart opener, as ‘the drink of friendship’, is alive and active within me and expanding my perception of community. As someone passionate about creating community, I have always been drawn to the culture that surrounds mate. And more broadly, the global traditional of drinking tea together. Through ages, through continents, tea has paused time and allowed for moments of connection and reflection, as well as moments of visioning and creation. By sharing yerba mate, I hope to share much more than just another health enhancing beverage. I wish to share experiences of being in community, heart opening experiences, experiences that expand our boundaries around brother and sisterhood… ultimately, experiences where our germs unite us rather than divide us!