Mate Matters

Ironically, there is an Incan cure-all that can heal all but one illness.

Travel sickness. Not in the sense of being sick while traveling, but of longing to travel the way some long for home.

I don’t know if this is a sensation encountered by other travelers, but I know it’s true of myself. Often I am hit with an itch I can’t scratch, a longing for a place I once was and cannot easily return to.

These past few days, my heart has been longing for Peru, and the only reachable balm to soothe the ache is mate.

Sure, I’ve tried eating ceviche–after all, it found its origin in Lima, Peru, and is the quintessential refreshing national dish. Somehow, though, ceviche in the States is lacking in depth, and feels cheap, shallow and entirely too citrusy (perhaps a result of the American fear of ‘raw’ fish.) Usually, eating my feelings quiets the grumbling, landlocked voice in my head. In this case, however, I am left feeling hollow and hungry and disappointed.

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Although nothing will ever taste the way I recall, mate tea comes close, bringing to mind the soaring Andes and the lightheaded giddiness of being somewhere mystical and new–or perhaps just high in altitude.

I recall my first experience with the tea, which is brewed from the leaves of the cocoa plant. Having reached Cusco with some difficulty, my party and I were welcomed into a large, cool space full of couches and mirrors. The walls were sealed, square blocks of historic Incan construction, covered nearly entirely with heavy wall hangings of Spanish influence. It is Peruvian history alive I recall thinking. Mate materialized in front of us, steaming in rough unglazed cups and saucers.

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It tasted bitter and herbaceous, a flavor I needed several sips to consider. I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not, so I drank the whole thing. If I couldn’t decide, I thought, I would consume until I did. Eventually it just became the flavor of my trip, one I associated with good memories.

All of this to say, it is a mate kind of week. Something about its unpretentious, mellow flavor brings me peace of mind, as though I am consuming history, which reminds me that although I cannot be sitting in between the tight cobblestone streets, they are not going anywhere. They will stand as they have for hundreds of years. Someday I’ll be back.

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