Story and Photos by Richard Morse
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2000, Vol. 16, No. 3
A chipped and battered, steaming cup is handed to me. The long bombilla - an incongruously ornate straw - beckons. I close my hands around the tiny tin cup, warming my fingers. Relaxing from my attempts to follow the whirling Spanish conversation around me, I focus on enjoying the bitter tea. I sip the mate slowly, but not so slowly that others in the group will become anxious awaiting their turn with the communal cup.
I came to love this ritual during my stint working for NOLS in Chile. I welcomed it in the morning, at the end of a long hiking day, or while sitting with pobladores around a stove or fire, deep in the heart of the Patagonian wilderness. My interactions with Chileans who had carved their niches into the wildernesses through which we hiked or kayaked were many of the richest of my seven months in Patagonia. And virtually all of these involved passing around a well-used mate and bombilla.
Mate ('mah-tay'), is a tea-like drink that is a staple of Patagonian existence, as in much of South America. (The cup, confusingly, is also referred to as mate.) It is drunk by siphoning hot water through crushed leaves that are tamped into a small cup or, in the north, a hollowed out gourd. With a caffeine-like affect, it is used ubiquitously as a morning drink, like coffee in North America, or an afternoon pick-me-up, like tea in Europe. It is also a focal point for any gathering.
In my first mountain section our course engaged the services of two Chilean brothers, Bernardo and Lautaro Aratia, to pack our second and third rations up the Rio Solo valley. For five days we traveled together, time for those of us new to Chile to practice our nascent Spanish, learn the ins and outs of the truco (the Patagonian card game and pastime), and share mate with the brothers, whose magnificent back yard we were exploring. As well, it was an opportunity to witness the southern Andes through the eyes and experience of Bernardo and Lautaro, who were fortunate to call it home - and who did so with pride.
The brothers, twenty-two and twenty-four years old, were quite a pair. As they moved through the woods it was easy to imagine them exploring their vast back yard as they grew up. Lautaro, with his quick smile, seemed to relish the challenges of the travel. He crashed through the dense woods, whistling and shouting encouragement to his pack horses, the pincheros. Bernardo was quieter, and trailed behind his brother. He urged his string through the terrain with calm persistence. Lautaro had learned to ride a horse at the age of three. To them, how odd it was for us to come all this way to walk - walk! - through the brush. The idea of spending time here just to explore - for a vacation, no less - was as foreign to them as our synthetic clothing and our puny camp stoves.
Every morning Lautaro and Bernardo leisurely saddled their horses and prepared the loads as we packed up camp and began our hike. Each day they passed us, gave us hints as to where the worst bushwhacking could be avoided, and disappeared into the underbrush. Each evening we pulled into a campsite chosen by the brothers, easily located by the smoke rising from their fire. As we set to our camp chores and rested our feet, Lautaro and Bernardo stoked their fire of wet Patagonian wood, tucked under one end of a plastic tarp lean-to, and sat back on sheepskin saddle blankets, appraising us with glinting eyes. After an early dinner and planning session, we instructors and several students would join them for cards, conversation, and mate.
We neophytes quickly learned the etiquette of mate. One of the two brothers tended an old coffee can that served as their kettle, with its baling wire handle, at the edge of the fire. The kettle tender acted as servidor, filling the cup with hot water and taking the first, most bitter steep of the herb. Then he filled it again, and passed it to his right, with the bombilla pointed toward the recipient. That person slipped out of the flow of the conversation for a moment, and focused on the drink. Each person was expected to drain the cup, then hand it back to the servidor. Taboo was the response of 'Gracias' upon offer of the cup - difficult for us foreigners, ever sensitive to the generosity of the brothers. This indicated that you did not wish to drink any more. Many times we tripped over ourselves in our efforts to retract the thank yous that slipped out when we were handed the steaming mate.
Those moments when I took my turn with the mate were exquisite. It was an opportunity to take in the conversation, yet observe the scene from a distance. Here we were, tucked under a tarp in a remote river valley deep in Chile. The fire cast ever changing, warm light around the simple shelter, and into the deepening blue of the night. In the distance the gently clanking bells of the horses mingled with the deeper gurgling of the Rio Solo, as its meltwater coursed past. The steep sided peaks hemmed us in but glinted, too, in the starlight, offering promise of new vistas to come. Observing Lautaro and Bernardo in these mountains it was possible to see how they were forged by their landscape. Reclined on the sheepskins, smiling, they relaxed like old friends. They seemed truly at home.
Finishing my turn with the mate, I returned it to Lautaro, who refilled it and passed it along to the next person in the circle. In this way it made its way to everyone in the group. Through Pancho, my Chilean co-instructor, a student asked Bernardo:
'Have you ever lived in town?'
'Si,' he responded laconically. 'I went to school in Cochrane until I was sixteen. I lived with my father's sister.'
'Did you like it?'
A wry smile. 'It was too crowded.' He returned to his family's campo to farm and live in the grand valley at their doorstep. We had driven through Cochrane; it was a town of perhaps three or four hundred people. What had it been like eight years ago, before the road had been built?
Lautaro's own campo was situated at the confluence of the Rio Solo and the Rio Ventisquero. We arrived there on our third day of hiking. Although he has a title to the land, he owns it more by a mix of squatter's rights and default - there are no other claimants to this remote corner of Patagonia.
I tried out my Spanish. 'Vienes aqui mucho?'
'No, no mucho.' Lautaro replied. 'Sometimes I came to work on my house.' He seemed proud to be able to call the place his own. I envied him, his slice of wilderness, backed up against the Northern Ice Cap along a beautiful and powerful river. It was remote - a two-day ride from his parents' home, which is a days' journey from the nearest settlement - but it was an extraordinary place. I was struck by the rawness of the land, and the circumspection, which it seemed to have fostered in Lautaro. Later, when the mate had made its way around the group several more times, weariness from the day's Chileaens reverted to rapid Spanish as we visiting Americans stepped into the crisp night and left behind the flickering firelight.
The time shared with Bernardo and Lautaro whetted our course's enthusiasm for spending time with Chileans. Later in our semester, as we kayaked through the islands and fiords of the Aisen coast, we sought out families who had made their homes in the forbidding landscape. In the bay of the ventisquero Jorge Montt, a huge tidewater glacier that reached the sea from the Southern Patagonian Icecap, we met several remarkable families, and shared laughter, work, food, and of course mate.
Don Irian Lenderos and wife, Delia, were on such family. When we paddled to their rocky beach, their dogs barked our arrival and they swept down to the shore to welcome us. My co-instructor had met them three years prior, and they were delighted for the return visit. Despite our unannounced arrival - no doubt odd, these gringos coming from the sea in their feeble, thin-skinned craft! - they took us in, and allowed us to set up our tent city on their front lawn, which was meticulously kept by a wandering assortment of chickens and geese. Proudly they led us on a tour of their grounds, from herb garden to sheep pens, from hand-hewn house to the shed and yard where Don Irian, with his son Luis' help, was crafting a 33-foot boat out of cypress harvested from his land.
That afternoon, by coincidence, Luis' wife Rosa and young son Leonardo arrived, adding to the bustle of the small campo, which had probably never seen so many people at once. In fact, Leonardo had never seen Americans before, but made instant friends with our students and their frisbee. In the evening the family opened the invitation to join them for a game of truco. A number of us packed into the already swelling house, to bask in the glow of the candlelight and participate in the merriment of the card game. While our roving truco sharks attempted to outwit Irian, Raphael and Rosa, Delia shuttled to and fro with the steaming mate, filled from a small kettle she kept on the edge of the stove.
I remember a sensation of the world becoming very small as I leaned against the wall of the house, my head nearly brushing the low ceiling. My position afforded me a sort of bird's eye view of the evening. Gesticulations and signals punctuated the card game; partners winked, signaling their intentions. Unsure of how much the gringos could comprehend, the Chileans spoke in rapid Spanish, trying to fool their opponents. Meanwhile the students talked openly and with great bravado, knowing that the family could have no idea of their secrets shared in English. The effect was that of an elaborate confusion, and each mistake was greeted with gales of laughter.
How incredible it was that this family should abandon whatever tasks they had at hand to take us in, to share their home, and to reach across the great rift of language and experience that separated us. They had a difficult sense of time, one that I admired; if they could not finish today the fence that needed mending, or the garden that needed weeding, or the wood that needed ferrying from the cypress lot, no matter. They lived very much in the present. Again I was struck by the feeling that these Chileans lived in a concert with their landscape, that they were used to delays and the unpredictability of a life exposed to the vagaries of Patagonia.
Once, as I turned to accept the mate from Delia, she pressed into my hand a steaming roll of fresh-baked bread, just out of the over. The room quieted as she set a basket of rolls on the table, and every player set down his or her cards to eat. The silence was golden, filled with light, contentment, and appreciation. I remember thinking that, without words, so much was expressed in that time. After a brief calm the cards were dealt, and the laughter and confusion erupted again. After a turn at the table myself, as the warmth of the house filled me with sleepiness, I bade the crowd 'Buenos noche,' and strode into the crisp Patagonian night. The clarity was palpable as I returned to my tent. I envisioned a plastic globe, like a beach ball held at arm's length, and myself poised so very far towards the bottom. Despite the distance from my origin - a day and a half by plane, two days' drive south on a dirt road, a month of hiking in the southern Andes, and three weeks' kayaking - I felt at home.
A year later, I still marvel at the sense of ease I found a in the pattern of my life in the Chilean backcountry. I think often of the people I met there, and of what turns their lives have taken in the intervening time. No doubt they arise each day and pass the mate back and forth; perhaps from time to time they wonder what became of the gringos who hiked or paddled into their lives for a short time. I returned from Chile with many fond memories, and if I need to prompt my reminiscence, I place a slightly worn Chilean kettle on the stove, sift a serving of mate into my cup, and prepare myself some of the bitter tea. I enjoy sipping the mate, though it's not quite the same without the chance to hand it to friends old and new, around a circle, to the right.