My first week of work in Buenos Aires was concluded on Thursday afternoon due to another probably-Christmas-related-but-not-really-sure public holiday the following day. Captured perfectly by one picture nonetheless, those five working days straddled across two weeks revolved chiefly around one thing – maté.
The curious looking silver-rimmed leathery cauldron that takes centre stage is a gourd. It is from this gourd that yerba-infused tea known as maté is shared and consumed as a group via the same steel straw bombilla. The quintessence of close-knit Argentinian sociability, in the office my maté group extends to roughly eight people including me and there is seemingly always a batch on the go.
Apparatus required are the gourd full of dried yerba leaves, a large thermos flask of boiling water, a smaller empty flask and the bombilla.
Scooped from the corporately sponsored pouch, the leaves are shaken thoroughly in the smaller vessel before they are ready to fill the gourd up to just over halfway. Thereafter the bombilla is anchored to a good spot where the leaves are settled, and so the round can begin. This sacred ritual of course has rules that must be observed, and they include:
1. When hosting the round, you must always drink first. This is principally to check it is neither too hot nor strong. Once you have consumed all the maté to the point of slurping, the gourd needs refilling from the flask. When it comes back to you, refill and pass on to the next person in the round.
2. Never change the order of the round. Embodied by the paperless/penless waiters in every bar and restaurant here, a good memory shows that one is paying attention and demonstrating genuine interest. As such, the host is responsible for remembering who comes next. Forgetting the order is a real faux pas.
3. Passing and receiving of the gourd is observed in silence by both parties. Only when someone says ‘Gracias’ after their last intake are they excusing themselves from the next round.
4. You do not under any circumstances disturb the bombilla from its resting position.
(*In my ignorance I broke one of the above unspoken rules in a meeting and was chastised accordingly.)
Unlike the tea round in England that everyone resents when it’s their turn to host, there is no such thing here. This is part of the cultural fabric of which there is such nationalistic pride, and so it feels like there is more at stake. To make a bad maté is almost tantamount to being a bad Argentinian.
Just prior to the curtain falling on a matécentric first week, I bravely offered to host the round. My logic was that the earlier I did this, the greater amount of goodwill there would be for me to redeem in case I got it wrong. All went to plan though somehow, and my highlight of the week was being complimented on my fledgling attempts at hosting.
Being invited into the intimate, inner circle of the maté round is a good example of how welcome my co-workers have made me feel so far. More so than anywhere else I have ever been, in Argentina people really go out of their way to look after their nearest and dearest. Naturally friends and family are highly valued. Between the hours approximating 9am and 6pm on Monday to Friday though, everyone here accepts that workmatés have priority.