Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Guarani Invasion of the United States


(A gaucho drinks yerba mate. From www.yerba-mate.com)



After my trip to Paraguay in 1986, I thought about how it would be interesting to import goods to the United States. Perhaps there would be demand in the United States for some hand-crafted Paraguayan items and native artwork. Pottery was one possibility. The other was high-quality hand-made linens like table cloths.

One item that was definitely NOT on my list of possible imports was Yerba Mate, a tea popular in Paraguay, Argentina and parts of Brazil. Although I like Yerba Mate and have consumed it on and off since 1986, it’s an acquired taste. To some it taste like a tea made out of alfalfa, with a splash of boot polish and cow dung. This is especially true when you drink it properly with a gourd and bombilla.

Back in 1986 and up until recently, my opinion was that Americans would NEVER drink Yerba Mate. Importing it would be a really stupid business idea.

Or would it?

I was surprised when, several years ago, it started showing up in some of the local hippie markets. I figured it was a specialty item, like Che Guevara T-shirts.

But last year a sticker appeared on the front door of a local, mainstream coffee shop advertising “Mendo Mate.” A few months later I asked the owner of a local drive-through coffee shop if she carried it. She did and reported that it was growing in popularity.

That struck me as odd, but not nearly as odd as what I saw today. I was delivering papers in Fieldbrook and stopped at the general store. As is customary on Tuesdays, I went to the refrigerator case to get a beverage.

There in the case alongside Coca-Cola and Red Bull was “Guayaki Yerba Mate” in a bottle similar to Snapple. There were two different types – “traditional mate” and a mate infused with mint.

I couldn’t resist, so I bought one – the “traditional” kind. In the parking lot I examined the bottle. I was fascinated. A teenage punk in a nearby car looked at me like I was a nutcase. In his defense, I was standing there for a long time reading the bottle and examining the small print as if it was sacred text.

Maybe it’s just me, but I always considered anything Paraguayan to be WAYYY outside the mainstream. It’s hardly a popular tourist destination or world player. It’s the kind of place that Hitler’s henchman went to hide.

It’s rumored that Dr. Josef Mengele spent time there. When we took a short boat trip up the Parana River, I kept thinking of that scene in the movie “Boys of Brazil” when Mengele is still conducting experiments in a secret location and developing Hitler clones.



(Photo of Gregory Peck playing Mengele in Boys From Brazil. From some Japanese website. I can't read Japanese, so I don't know what the heck it was.)

Germany and Paraguay have deep roots. Alfredo Stroessner, who was the dictator from 1954 to 1989, is the son of a German immigrant. During my visit in 1986, I recall seeing anti-Semitic fliers with swastikas on telephone polls. Disturbing. But there were also some excellent German bakeries in Asuncion. What were all those aging blonde-haired women with pasty white skin doing in South America?

Once on a bus ride in a rural part of the country, I came across an old white guy who spoke English with a German accent. He claimed to be an immigrant from Canada who came to Paraguay to farm.

That’s weird. How many Canadians wake up one day and say “I think I’ll move to Paraguay and start a farm”??

It sounded suspicious. Or maybe he was on to something – move to Paraguay, buy an enormous number of acres for nearly nothing, start a farm, use your German to get in good with the dictator and watch the money roll in.

To dream up such an idea, it would help to be naive. You’d have to take a risk. Maybe you’d have to be a little crazy.

Like someone who would import Yerba Mate and sell it to Americans.

The Guayaki Yerba Mate company, based in San Luis Obispo, imports the tea from Paraguay. It’s grown in the Itapua Preserve in southeast Paraguay.

If the company’s claims are true, it’s a pretty neat idea. They help preserve the rainforest and help the natives by harvesting a sustainable protect, which in this case is basically the leaves from the mate tree.

While still in Paraguay, the mate is dried and processed. Then it’s shipped to the United States.

The company sells mate in a variety of forms – loose, bagged and bottled.

Personally, I like mate the traditional way – hot in a gourd and sipped through a bombilla, which acts as a filter – kind of. The first two or three gourds are usually “extra chunky” and leave a green stain on your tongue.


(Gourds and bombillas. From www.miyerbamate.com)


Mate from a tea bag, which I had for the first time a couple weeks ago, is also good. It’s like a really weak version of regular mate, minus the chunks and green tongue.

As for the “Snapple”-like version of mate from the general store, there’s something truly disgusting about because it’s “lightly sweetened.” I guess you could say that, quite literally, it’s not my cup of tea.

That said, I hope the company does a booming business. There’s something pleasurable about knowing that a Paraguayan product with a Guarani name has invaded the United States.

It takes me back. It’s almost as if I’m in Paraguay circa 1986 – everyone is drinking mate and a tyrannical president with a total disregard for human rights is in charge of the country. No passport required.

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