Probably every blog post I write while in Paraguay will include the word tereré, so I figured I should introduce you to this fundamental aspect of Paraguayan culture.
Let’s start with the basics. Tereré is a drink: basically, the cold form of maté. It is also a verb in Guaraní.
To terere, you need your equipo (team). First, there’s the guampa. This is the cup. I received my first (and probably not last) guampa at the end of training. The tall, thin, lopsided shape signifies that the guampa is for tereré. For maté, people use a shorter, rounded guampa like those more commonly used in other South American countries.
Into the guampa, you put your yerba maté. Think loose-leaf tea – though of course it is not technically tea. (As a drinker of herbal “tea,” I am not entirely clear on what constitutes a tea leaf, but I know yerba maté is a different type of plant.) Most people have their favorite brand and variety of yerba. It can be pure or have herbs like mint mixed in to make it less strong/bitter. Some Peace Corps Volunteers have helped (or are helping) their communities grow and sell yerba. It can flourish in shady areas, like under trees, which makes it a potential tool in the fight against deforestation.
Next, you have a bombilla. This is no ordinary straw. Just as with maté, the bombilla is metal and has a little filter at the end. It is used to sip the terere without getting (much) yerba in your mouth. (The first few sips always come with a bit of yerba, and some people spit it out.) We also received bombillas before swearing in as volunteers, because – according to our punny master trainer – training sucks. (Ha. Ha. Ha.)
Of course, you can’t suck up dry yerba. This is where a termo (thermos) comes in. A good termo will keep your water nice and cold. With tereré, the more ice the better; it’s one of the only ways to survive the sweltering summers here. Termos can have some pretty fancy designs, often with a sort of leather casing that has the logo of the owner’s favorite fútbol club (Olimpia vs. Cerro Porteño is the biggest rivalry) or a cheesy quote about friendship/being a mother. At home, many people instead use a metal or plastic pitcher for their water (agua in Spanish, y in Guaraní).
Agua isn’t the only thing that goes into the termo or pitcher. You shouldn’t forget the yuyos (herbs or weeds). These are leaves, roots, or flowers that add flavors (and/or health benefits) to your tereré. You grind them up a bit, often with a mortar and pestle, and add them to the water. Some I had never heard of; others are more familiar: mint, ginger, lemongrass. If something hurts physically or emotionally, you can bet someone will have a yuyo suggestion. Also, as if yerba weren’t enough of a diuretic, many of the yuyos make me have to pee every five minutes for a couple hours.
Now that you have your equipo, it’s time to share some tereré with friends, family, and strangers alike, generally while sitting in a circle. Pour a bit of water from your termo into your guampa and pass it to someone who drinks until there is no more water and then passes it back. Repeat. There is an order to who drinks, and each person gets their turn (torno in Spanish, ha in Guarani). Often the person serving is the youngest in the group, though generally a host or hostess will serve their guests.
You may wonder when the best time to drink tereré is. The answer is almost any time, especially if you’re looking to have a tranquilo conversation with someone (suggestions for conversational topics: the weather, neighborhood gossip, or the strange habits of the Peace Corps Volunteer in your community). Bring your equipo out to your front porch, to work, to a fútbol game, or on a road trip. Are you driving a car or bus? No problem, go ahead and terere. Tereré can be drunk while doing nearly any job. I didn’t fully understand how ubiquitous it was until I saw a fire truck driving the road with the fire fighters sitting on top, passing around a guampa.
There are however some times when you cannot terere. If it is cold or early morning/late evening, you drink maté (which is scalding hot here). People might turn down the guampa if they are sick or have on lipstick or have been smoking. You also can’t drink if you haven’t eaten at all, or if you are currently eating. And don’t even think about drinking something cold near to a time when you have drunk or will be drinking something hot (the same goes for taking a cold shower after drinking/eating a hot thing, or a hot shower after ingesting something cold). Some say you’re not supposed to terere when you have your period. And people tend to believe that eating watermelon and then drinking something water-based will cause you to explode.
Potential explosions (or more realistically, the transfer of germs) aside, the tereré lifestyle is one Peace Corps Volunteers quickly pick up. It is a way Paraguayans demonstrate hospitality, companionship, commonality, and tranquilidad – and it is practically a necessity when temperatures reach 45º C. Supposedly you can identify a returned volunteer who served in Paraguay by the equipo on their office desk, so if you don’t get a chance to visit the “heart of South America,” I’ll make sure to pass you the guampa when I get back to the U.S.