My name is Alan. I own a driving school in Rock Hill, South Carolina (USA). As a result, I meet people from various backgrounds. To me, this is a perk of my job, because I love to learn about other cultures. I am intrigued by the many ways people talk, dress, eat, etc. To date, I have taught students from China, Japan, Vietnam, Mexico, France, England, Jamaica, India and Egypt, just to name a few!
Sometimes my customers want to share a favorite dish with me. Now, some officials in my field never accept any kind of gift for fear of raising suspicion of favoritism among clients, or even bribery. While I can understand their position, I have taken a different approach. I feel that when someone offers a gift, it should be accepted with graciousness, especially if it is something unique to the country from which that person comes. So, I have tasted garden grown Chinese watermelon, Korean vegetables and Indian biryani flavored with goat. Whether I happen to like the offering or not is not really the point; it is that I respect the person and their culture enough to at least try it. And more often than not, I actually like the taste of it!
Well, back in 2018 I had a husband and wife needing to take the road test in order to get their driver’s licenses. Their name was Kanbar, and they were from Kuwait. Mrs. Kanbar did not speak any English, and Mr. Kanbar spoke very little, and those few words were spoken with a pronounced accent. That is why they had their sons with them, so they could assist in communicating with me. (Interestingly, Mr. Kanbar had nearly two decades of driving experience in his native land, but failed his test the first time with me, but Mrs. Kanbar, who had only a year or so of driving experience, passed the first time.)
When Mr. Kanbar passed his driving test on the second attempt, he was so happy! He just had to express his appreciation for my helping him get his driver’s license. And so, he presented me with a gift: 500 grams of Piporé yerba mate, along with a metal bombilla! It had to be the original cut with stems, because it came in a red box.
I must have had a quizzical look on my face, because then Mr. Kanbar tried to describe what a yerba mate is. Between him pantomiming its preparation and enjoyment of drinking it while his children tried to explain what he was trying to tell me, I was truly touched. Whatever this stuff was, by the rapturous expression on his face, I was convinced that it must be a delightful elixir that I just had to try!
Of course, when I first tasted it, I was taken aback. Was it supposed to taste this way? Did I not do something right? Had the product gone bad? Every few months I would try it again, just to see if I had acquired a taste for it yet. Nearly a year later, after having used only half of it, I ended up throwing it away.
Well, as it turned out, I ended up testing and training both sons and their daughter. Again, I was presented with another container of Piporé yerba mate. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I never finished the first box. I just smiled and thanked him. But this time, instead of taking infrequent sips months apart, I tried drinking it more often. And then something strange happened: I started to tolerate it, and eventually, even to like it! Although honey could be added to make it more palatable, more and more I found that I preferred to taste the full essence of yerba mate without disguising its flavor.
Since I really didn’t know much about this new drink, I went online to research it. I made it my mission to learn everything I could about yerba mate; its origin, its history, its popularity, its health benefits. The more I learned, the more I came to appreciate that this was no ordinary drink. It had a culture all its own. There were even protocols on how to prepare it, how to drink it. Yerba mate was not just drunk out of a cup; it was a GOURD! And yet, it didn’t have to be a hollowed-out plant; it could be made from wood, ceramic, glass, silicone, even a bull’s horn.
However, looking in local stores turned up nothing. Not only did retailers not sell yerba mate, they didn’t even know what it was. Finally, one of my online searches turned up a small company in Asheville, NC called Mate Factor. So, the next trip my wife and I took to the mountains, I searched it out. It was the weekend, so I didn’t get my hope up that anyone would be at the address on my gps. The building looked industrially nondescript. When I knocked on a steel door, a rough looking older guy said he wasn’t sure if they were in, but he’d check. It seems that they were doing a little business catchup paperwork, and they let me in. And that is where I purchased my first bag of yerba mate and my first drinking gourd.
Since then, I have tried at least eleven different kinds of yerba mate. I have a second drinking gourd (steel) and am trying to make another out of clay. I have three metal spoon bombillas. I have sent a gift set to a friend who expressed interest when she saw me drinking it on Zoom. My wife still doesn’t have the slightest interest in trying what she calls “grass cuttings” but that’s okay. In my circle, I am both cebador and matero. And that suits me just fine.
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