Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Capoeira and Mate in Coyhaique

In a few hours after our last post we successfully connected with our CS host Claudio. He treated us to a thick fish soup at a restaurant of his aunt and drove us to his place to drop our bags off. In a few minutes after we entered Claudio´s house and met his grandmother Lina (a woman of 85 years of age, remarkably agile for her years) our benefactor was off to his work. He is an Emergency Room doctor at a local hospital.
We respectfully exchanged a few phrases with Lina and went to follow up on Fidel´s invitation for a mate in his store. In the following two days we learnt A LOT about mate, mate drinking traditions and the history of the region in general. Fidel is a master of his field and he kept loading us with information, clearly enjoying sharing his vast knowledge of the subject. Here is the recap of what we retained from the hours of listening:
Yerba mate (llex paraguariensis) is mostly grown in the northern provinces of Argentina and sipping on a steep brew of this chopped-up grass is a crucial part of the Argentinian identity. In the Chilean Patagonia the Argentinian influence is very strong, as the first settlers were arriving in the region from across the Andes. During the slow travel across the Argentinian territories the colonists picked up the local traditions. The most obvious of those traditions in today´s everyday life are the gaucho dress style and the mate drinking.
An essential part of drinking mate is sharing it. If you are offered a mate it is a first sign of welcome and hospitality in the homes (and trucks:) of the region. There is a simple but an important protocol in sharing mate and here are some of the most important points:
-When sharing mate with a group of people, the gourd always travels counter-clockwise (opposite to the northern tradition of passing a joint ¨to the right¨).
-The gourd is to be handed and received with a right hand, with the bombilla (the straw) pointed at the receiver.
-The receiver is only to thank the cebador (the person in charge of the serving) when he had his fill of mate, thus indicating that he wants no more. If you say ¨thank you¨ in the first round, you will lightly offend the offerer and will not be offered the gourd the next time around.
-Rejecting an offer to drink mate is a bad idea. In doing so you will miss an opportunity to meet a good-hearted person and an easy-flowing conversation. An offer of mate is a first sign that you are accepted. A little later will come an offer of food and finally of accomodation.
Mate has an energizing effect, similiar to that of a strongly brewed tea, coffee or a mild toke. Truckers are famous for drinking it as it keeps them awake during long night-time hauls across the pampas.
We spent about four hours in ¨Casa del Mate¨ that time. Fidel gave us a tour of the shop: At least 7 different brands of mate, pots and pans, hats and pants, bombillas and gourds, axes and knives, even horseshoe nails were sold in this place.
It had a strange but a pleasant feeling: It looked like a souvenir shop, but was widely popular with the local farmers as well. After the tour Fidel put on the kettle and served us mate until we had to thank him while returning the gourd. When we walked out onto the street we were so pumped with the brew that we had to keep our hands from shaking mildly and our eyes turning wildly in all directions.
We stopped at a grocery store to pick up some supplies for cooking pizza for our hosts and headed home. As soon as the pizza was out of the oven Claudio came home from work and we shared a delicious meal. After our road diet of bread and pasta this veggie-loaded, cheese-topped pie was a feast to our poor little constricted stomachs.
After the meal we started talking and Claudio mentioned in passing that he is a practitioner of Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian ¨game¨. An essential part of the game is the rhythm provided by the drums and the Berimbau. We hopped on the subject and Claudio´s eyes cought fire in a flash. In a few seconds he was rigging up his instrument to demontrate the music to us. We had the honour of filming this impromptu kitchen musical piece, please enjoy here.Claudio played with passion for about half an hour, loosing himself in the rythm, with a broad smile on his face. We went to sleep in the small hours.The next morning we were woken up at 7 am by Claudio. He was free until noon before going to the hospital, and he was eager to show us the surrounding areas. We had a quick but big breakfast, hopped into his Toyota and were off. It was raining outside, but in the first time in more than a week we did not care about the drizzle, sure of drying out later on. Claudio took us to the near-by Falls of the Virgin and Falls of the Virgin´s Vail. The former impressed us more as one could come right up to the gushing waterfall, breathing in the humid vapour and bracing against the strong wind produced by the falling mass of water.The second part of the excursion was of little interest, as Claudio himself also admitted. He took us for a drive through Puerto Aisen and Chacabuco. Puerto Aisen has a local fame for being the suicide capital of the region, simultaneously boasting of the highest depression and alcoholism rate of the area. Little wonder, as it rarely stops raining in this hole of a town.
Chacabuco´s main attraction is a sleepy port with one old fork-lift moving the containers about the yard. It is from this port´s only peer that the first-class catamarans carry the wealthy people of this world to a one day excursion to Laguna San Rafael. The $400 price tag includes million year old ice cubes from San Rafael Glacier in your whiskey glass and a party with an open bar after the tour.
When we came back home, Claudio had a ten-minute snooze and rushed for his post, being a little late. We had ourselves a warming cup of tea and a slice of yesterday´s pizza. We veggied in front of a computer screen for some hours before we got bored. ¨What to do, what to do?¨ we asked ourselves. Drink mate!
We headed to the ¨Casa del Mate¨, once again following up on Fidel´s invitation. This time we showed up at the busiest time of the day and Fidel was rushing between attending to his customers and serving mate. The conversation had a hard time taking off, but as the flow of people decreased towards the evening, Fidel, his brother Samael and the shop employee Andrea relaxed, sat in the chairs around the stove and we talked about all manner of things. After we closed the shop, Fidel took us to a beautiful vista overlooking the town. We shared a beer and contemplated the severe sky and the landscape shivering from an unexpectedly freezing wind. After the first beer we gave up and hopped inside the truck, continuing our conversation there. Fidel drove us home after dark. We hugged our new friend, wished him farewell and ran up the stairs.


  1. I got to experience mate thanks to my tango teachers - what an awesome tradition! I didn't know some of these things though... I hope some of my mistakes will be discounted due to my north americanness. For instance you're not supposed to touch the straw while drinking? that's the first thing I did! :)

  2. Ha-ha, that was our first impulse, too! What is this thing in here...? OOps, sorry:)

  3. I LOVE THE MATE!! Definently my favourite part about Argentina

    Whenever you guys get down to TDF, I arrived to Ushuaia today, let me know!