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Adventure in Paraguay

Adventure doesn't have to be an adventure at Iguazu Falls to be adventure.  Even though Iguazu Falls was certain to happen while in Paraguay!  Learning a new cultural experience is also high on my list.  When in Rome, do as the Romans do.  And, when in Paraguay, do "terere".

When I visited Ethiopia, the favorite local drink was honey beer.  I don't really like beer - at all - and I just found it impossible to do as the Romans, or Ethiopians, did.  I did, however, really like the way honey beer was consumed.  I found two ways.  The traditional glass was sort of pear shaped with a spout on top, almost like a science beaker.  It made the whole concept of drinking honey beer a lot more attractive.  In fact, without ever tasting one drop of honey beer, I had to get some of those glasses.  I only wanted a set of six.  They sold in sets of twelve.  Okay, so I have honey beer glasses to spare.  And, whenever I have guests with kids, I offer them drinks from my favorite glasses from Africa.  Kids are always thrilled.

Honey Beer flasks and Sharing a Jug in Ethiopia

The second way to drink your honey beer was equally unique.  There were jugs with two handles and one spout.  The idea was for friends to share a jug.  Each would hold onto the jug with one hand and drink together from the spout.  Okay, I'm not really sure about the mechanics of the actual guzzling.  Maybe one person sipped and then the other person did the same.  It sounds like it would be really messy - and wet - if you both tried to drink it at the same time.  Still, I thought it was a great way to drink with a friend.  If I drank honey beer out of a two fisted jug, I would only do it with a really, truly good friend.

And, this brings me to terere.  It's a very traditional drink in Paraguay.  They have beer (without honey) and drinks sweetened only with sugar cane juice, but as far as I could tell, terere was king.  So, just what is it?  Well, you know that necessity is the mother of invention.  And, there was a need long ago in Paraguay to have a refreshing drink with lukewarm water.  Just saying "lukewarm water" isn't satisfying.  On a hot day, and I found it frequently topped 100 degrees, I never longed for lukewarm anything.  Now days, you can get ice, Fanta, colas, and chill whatever your little taste buds desire.  But, back in the day when terere became the social drink in Paraguay, lukewarm water was the only liquid that most people had to deal with.

So, I repeat, what is terere?  To keep it short and sweet, it is a drink made from yerba and yuyo.  Short, sweet, and satisfied?  If you are anything like me, there is a whole lot of vocabulary to learn to go along with terere. 

Termos and guampas at the Bus Station.

Begin by getting a "termos".  Even for not so great Spanish speakers, that's fairly easy to figure out as a thermos.  But, you are supposed to get a big one.  And, if you get an authentic termos, it comes complete with the guampa and bombilla.  I'll get to those words later.

You put your yuyo in the termos.  Yuyo, in the indigenous language of the Guaraní, is an assortment of medical herbs.  It can even have a mint flavor if you want.  So, when you have your yuyo soaking up lukewarm water in the termos, you are nearly halfway there.

Next, you place your yerba in the guampa.  Yes, I guess there is more vocabulary to learn.  Yerba is in the same family as holly.  You can buy it in tin cans filled with the shredded plant.  It smells like freshly cut grass, which has never been on my list of things to drink.  It has some caffeine in it, but I don't think enough for my morning cravings. 

Anyway, you cram some of the yerba into the guampa, a special kind of cup.  The traditional Guaraní cup is made from cattle horn.  If you aren't into that, there are special metal cups.  I thought that no self-respecting terere drinker would show their face in public with a plastic guampa.  That was before I went to the central bus station.  The market is packed with assorted sets of termos and guampas in matching, horrendous patterns.  If you can drink your terere from a leopard spotted guampa or carry your yuyo in a termos with tacky butterfly patterns, plastic is not going to slow down your sipping at all.  I was particularly horrified by all of what I saw at the bus station.  Every terere item I'd seen prior to that was tasteful and beautiful.  Then, it was pointed out to me that they were also expensive.  Okay, no surprise after all.  I always like really expensive quality items.  Every time!

The trick with the guampa is to not fill it too full because the yerba will eventually expand.  Like an expert filling a pipe, you have to learn just the right amount.  You don't want to waste any yerba or look like a novice while waiting at the bus stop.  A little practice makes perfect.

Okay, you have your yuyo in the termos and your yerba in the guampa.  You may think you are ready for a refreshing lukewarm drink, but you aren't quite there.  Now you have to pour the lukewarm, yuyo laced water into the guampa filled with yerba. 

Finally, cram your bombilla to the bottom of the guampa.

The bombilla, before cramming it into the yerba

The bombilla, a Spanish word, has no English equivalent because there is nothing like it in America.  It is a metal straw with a spoon shaped filter at the bottom.  That filter is smashed into the midst of the yerba and down to the bottom of the guampa.  It will prevent any yerba from making its way into your mouth.  Now, take a sip.  You've earned your crack at the taste of a lukewarm, Paraguayan social drink.

As you sip your drink, I have more information to share.  These exact ingredients are enjoyed in winter and summer.  In the winter, you drop your yuyo into hot water.  The end result is called "mate". In the summer, and I was definitely in Paraguay in the summer time, you enjoy cold water in your "terere".  I'm not sure, but it sounds like lukewarm water was gleefully replaced by ice cubes with the arrival of modern technology. 

If you are a hassled commuter involved in a hurried rush to get to work, local shops sell "hielo" (ice) in shapes that easily fit into your termos.  That way, you and everyone else on the bus can enjoy your terere on the way to work, at every single break during the day, and back home again with your friends and family. 

With so much tradition and history, of course, there are "do's and don'ts" about drinking terere.  And, of course, in complete ignorance, I violated most of them.  Fortunately, my Paraguayan friends were patient.

Rule Number One:  Terere is a shared drink.  Everyone drinks from the same glass, using the same bombilla.  I used the word "bombilla" because it isn't nearly as shocking to germ-a-phobic Americans.  But, remember, it's a straw and you share it.

Rule Number Two:  After you have your drink, you always pass the guampa back to your serving host.  It's the host's job to refill the glass before passing it on to another friend.  You don't take one down and pass it around, like I tried.  No, you return to sender, or in this case, a generous host.

Rule Number Three:  Little children don't drink terere.  But, when they become teenagers, it's all a part of growing up in the family.  However, another part of terere etiquette is who serves whom.  It's almost offensive for parents to serve their children.  Nope, those teenagers need to learn some manners and they might as well pass their guampa with a smile.

Rule Number Four:  Speaking of manners, sometimes Americans have too many of them.  We always say "please" and "thank you" so much that people in other countries find it humorous.  I say this because it applies to terere drinking.  When you give your guampa back to the host, if you say "thank you", well . . . "gracias", your host will never give you any more to drink.  For you see, although gracias means thank you, it has a totally different meaning when drinking terere.  In this case, gracias means "I've had enough and I don't want any more.  Thank you very much."  So, mind your manners.

Rule Number Five:  If asked if you want sugar in your terere, always say no.  Nobody ever adds sugar to their terere!  I, of course, asked why?  And, the answer was very clear.  If you ask for sugar in your terere, everyone will know you are a savage foreigner.

Rule Number Six:  Once the bombilla has been crammed into the bottom of the yerba, don't mess with it!  No matter how tempting it is to see that unique little spoon filter, don't pull it out of the terere.  No, don't touch it!  Do not yield to that temptation! Your Paraguayan hosts may be polite about this, but it will drive them crazy.  For you see, it stirs up the herbs and changes the taste of the brew.  So, to almost quote Jim Croce, "You don't tug on Superman's cape.  You don't spit in the wind.  You don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger and you don't mess around with" a bombilla! (Sorry, Jim.)

Rule Number Seven:  The first six rules were explained to me.  I made up this last one.  But, it may be the most important of them all.  Enjoy Rule Number One.  Forget about the germs!  It's no more germs than a really good kiss!  For most people, if you have someone in your life who you kiss, that's the only person you should be kissing on.  But, hopefully, you also have other friends in your life who are special to you.  This is a great way to let them know they are one of those special people in your life.  Finally, if you don't have any yerba and yuyo or you just can't get past the germs, be sure to find a way to let the people you care about know just how you feel.  With or without germs, you need to do that as often as possible.

Copyright 2012 by Phillip Martin All rights reserved.