Tereré: Not Just a Beverage, a Philosophy

Tereré, circa 2009

There’s nothing more Paraguayan than tereré, where drinking this ice-cold caffeinated beverage is a daily ritual. It involves dried leaves from the yerba mate plant, packaged in 1/2 kilo quantities (or more), poured into a cup called a guampa, infused with ice-cold water, and drunk through a filtered straw called a bombilla. The result is minty, earthy, and so refreshing on those 95+ degree days where the sun beats down on you, which in Paraguay is the majority of days. Many people are more familiar with tereré’s piping hot cousin, mate, which is popular in Argentina, Uruguay, and parts of Brazil, but tereré is much more common in Paraguay.

I became something of an addict while I was living in Paraguay, and my obsession has continued ever since. But drinking tereré is not really a solo activity – it’s meant to be shared. Everyone drinks from the same straw, passing the cup in a circle until you don’t want any more. While I love the taste of tereré and I do partake regularly, it’s not the same drinking it alone. It’s not like our culture of coffee to-go, where the purpose is to consume caffeine as quickly as possible so that you can boost your daily productivity. Tereré is the opposite. The purpose is to slow down, and converse, or simply sit and enjoy the weather. And now that I live in the US, I have to wait all winter for the time when it’s finally warm enough to drink tereré. And friends, that time has finally arrived!

Me, enjoying some tereré during the Peace Corps days

But the very idea of tereré right now, during the coronavirus pandemic, feels almost heretical. The beverage is literally meant to be communal. Everyone drinks from the same straw! Clearly not COVID-friendly as far as habits go. And it makes me angry and sad, because it is yet another aspect of everyday life coronavirus has taken away from us. My heart aches, so much, for my family and friends around the world that I don’t get to see right now, and who are all dealing with the circumstances that life has dealt them in this moment. We’ve lost so much.

We used to have a Peace Corps newsletter every month, and once there was a poem published in it called “The Philosophy of Tereré”. It wasn’t attributed to an author, just said “a Paraguayn” so I don’t know where the poem came from. It was in Spanish but I translated it into English to share with my family and friends. I’ve held onto it ever since and now I’d like to share it with you. In the next post, I’ll provide instructions if you would like to make tereré yourself.

The Philosophy of Tereré

Author: A Paraguayan

Tereré is not a drink…
Well, yes.  It’s liquid and it enters through your mouth.
But it’s not a drink.
In Paraguay, no one drinks tereré because they are thirsty.
It’s more of a habit, like scratching oneself.

Tereré is the exact opposite of television.
It makes you converse if you are with someone, and it makes you think when you are alone.
When someone comes to your house the first thing you say is “Hello” and the second, “Tereré?”

This happens in all homes.  In those of the rich and in those of the poor.
It happens between serious or gossipy women, and between contemplative or immature men.
It happens between the elderly in nursing homes and between teenagers while they study.
It is the only thing that parents and children share without arguing or pestering each other.
Colorados and Liberales* serve tereré without question.
In summer and in winter.
It is the only time when victims and executioners look the same.
The good and the evil.
When you have children, you will begin to give them tereré when they ask for it, and they will feel more adult.
You’ll feel an enormous pride when that little dwarf of your blood begins to drink it.
So much that it feels like your heart is leaping out of your chest.
Later, as the years pass, they will choose to drink it alone, with yuyos** or a splash of lemon.

When you meet someone for the first time, you always say, “If you want, come over and we’ll drink tereré.”
They’ll ask, when they aren’t sure: with lemon, very cold, or not so cold?
You’ll respond: As you like it.
There is yerba stuck between the letters on computer keyboards.
Yerba is the only thing that is always there, in all homes.
Always.  With inflation, with hunger, with democracy or not, with whichever of our eternal plagues and curses.
And if one day there isn’t any yerba, a neighbor will have some and will give it to you happily, and it will all be okay.
Yerba is not denied to anyone.

This is the only country in the world where the decision to stop being a boy and to start being a man happens on a particular day.  It has nothing to do with long pants, circumcision, college, or living far from one’s parents.

Here we begin to be adults the day that we have the need to drink tereré for the first time alone.

It’s not chance.  It doesn’t just happen.
The day that a boy drinks his first tereré when there is nobody home, in that moment, he does it because he has discovered that he has a soul.
Or he is dying of love, or something: but it’s not just any day.
None of us remember the day that we drank our first tereré alone.
But it should have been an important day for each of us.
Because there are revolutions inside…

The simple tereré is nothing more and nothing less than a show of values.
It is the solidarity of paying for the yerba because the lesson is good, the lesson, not the tereré.
It is the respect for a time to speak and a time to listen: you speak while the other drinks, and vice versa.
It is the sincerity to say, change the yerba, or fix it a little bit.
It is the companionship of the moment.
It is the caring to ask, foolishly, “It’s good, right?”
It is the modesty of the person who serves the best tereré.
It is the generosity of giving until the end.
It is the hospitality of the invitation.
It is the justice of one by one.
It is the obligation to say “thank you” at least once a day.
It is the ethical, honest, and loyal attitude of finding yourself without any pretension other than to share.

Now you know, tereré is not just tereré.
Go get the water ready, because I’m coming over.

*Colorados and Liberales are the two major political parties in Paraguay.

**Yuyos translates literally to “herbs” but these are optional flavors for the water, such as mint leaves, dill, rose petals, lemon slices, and more.

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