Monday, March 26, 2012

Mate with Matt

March 26, 2012 – Mate with Matt

A Brit, an American, and a calabash gourd walk into a park. Sounds like the start to a great joke only I don’t know what the punch line is. I’m thinking about this as I take a bus into Miraflores and hotfoot it over the tree Matt and I have set up as our meeting spot in Parque Kennedy. I’m about thirty minutes late. It’s partially my fault, leaving the apartment seven minutes later than I’d planned, and partially Lima’s transit system’s fault, I’d waited curbside for at least fifteen minutes before one of the three combis I can take into town drives by. I flag it down. The bus is crowded and the Cobrador tells me to take the front seat. The man inside gets out and lets me climb up into the middle seat and then he gets back in next to me. I twist over so that my knees are out of the way of the driver and the gearshift and settle in for the twenty minute ride. The air sifts in through the open window. It feels nice against my face. I’ve been off my routine for about a week while Matt was staying at the apartment and I’m feeling pressure from my self-imposed need to do things. The last few days I’ve been frantically achieving and scratching things off my To Do list and then turning right around to add more to the mix. I need to chill out. To be. To slow up and remember to breathe. A half day off will give my thoughts time to settle, the story ideas I’ve got drowning in my head time to surface, and my OCD tendencies a Time Out.
It doesn’t matter that I’m late. Matt isn’t here yet. The thirty minute grace-period is one of the nice things about South America. Sometimes it’s also one of the most infuriating things about South America too.

I glance up and down the park making sure I haven’t missed Matt. He’d introduced me to mate (pronounce mah-teh) while he crashed at the apartment for a few days. He’d shown me how to dump the yerba mate leaves into the gourd and shake them up, add a touch of cool water to soak the flavor out, and how to set the bombilla—the silver straw that acts as a sieve and straw—just at the right angle. He’d made several trips to bring out the thermos of hot water, the extra herbs, and the bag of yerba mate in case we needed to strengthen the mix as we drank. We’d taken our chairs out on the patio and sat with our feet up on the balcony edge.
He took the first sip. “As the host, I’m actually supposed to,” he explained. Then when it was set to taste and he’d added in some fresh hot water for me, he handed the gourd over and I sipped my first Argentinian-style prepared mate. Then he’d caught me up on the last eight months of his life since he’d left Lima in June just after he and I met for the first time, up to the moment when he stepped off the bus back in Lima once again.

We passed the calabash gourd back and forth. When we drained the water, Matt added more. When the thermos was empty he went back inside to refill it from our water boiler.
We sat there for hours, drinking tea and sharing life stories. We talked about wicked men, patriarchal cultures, injustice, pain, love, choice, obtaining visas, jobs, Lori Berenson, ideals, books and language. Fictional characters took residence in my head while we talked. I jotted some notes in my book so I wouldn’t forget. Inspiration is always an unexpected and welcome gift.

I’m making a slow round on the sidewalk near the tree when I hear my name. Matt approaches. He has his mate bag slung over a shoulder and a 2 liter jug filled with hot water in his hand.
We make the usual greetings; forgiving and apologizing for being late. The park is busy. All the benches taken. We find a spot on a curb in front of a tree while we wait for a bench to free up.

“I wanted to be closer to the cats. I wanted to get a bench,” Matt says mournfully. There’s a clowder of cats that live in this area—fed by tourists and loving citizens. Matt calls it the Cat Park and he points the cats out to me as they mill about. He loves them. One dark cat darts in front of us with a dog in hot pursuit. The cat claws up a tree and I know it’s thumbing its nose at the dog.

Matt sifts the mate into the calabash gourd and shakes the leaves. He adds in a pinch of the extra herbs.
Matt and the Fortuneteller
“The man over to your left,” I tell him, motioning with a flick of my eyes. “Is the fortuneteller of Parque Kennedy.” I’d spoken with him once when I came alone to the park to have a change of pace from the quiet of Cieneguilla. I’d spoken with the fortuneteller about his travels, his retirement, his need to be out with people instead of home alone watching TV. I’d been the Adivina of Cieneguilla at the time myself, predicting the emergence of the sun each day at Jose’s request. I smile at the memory. How long ago that was. Wasn’t that just yesterday?

Vigilant, Matt sees a couple leave their bench. “Quick,” he says. “Go save the bench and I’ll bring everything over.”
I hop it over and save the spot for us.

We settle in.
“You don’t talk much,” Matt says, arranging all our mate paraphernalia on the bench beside him. “You’re going to talk for a while now.”

I do have something on my mind. “I was thinking about something you said the other day,” I say. We’d talked about physical and psychological pain and I’d been pushed on to think about people who cut themselves as a way to cope with the pain in their life. Or the ones who cut tiny lines over their skin in order to feel real again, to bring them back into reality from the disembodied existence they live within for whatever reason. I’m fascinated by what drives us to do what we do, why we are the way we are, and if, and how, we can change. I’d been thinking about this for days. Why would someone cut? How do we deal with pain? How do I deal with pain? There’s a female character taking form in my brain. She’s gathering strength to whisper her story into my ear. But she’s still phantasmal. I’ve enjoyed my conversations with Matt. We both have different perspectives, but we can discuss things from our own spheres. Like some conversational Venn diagram where we approach our talks from our own mental processes and somewhere it overlaps. Matt’s interests pivot around political, social, cultural and personal instances that relate back to values—ideas he’s cementing to put into the book he will write as an aid to the Green Party.  My interests are in human relationships, the way we are, fiction, and psychology (to name a few).
I find our talks absorbing, interesting.

“I was thinking about pain,” I continue. “And how sometimes a person will create physical pain when their emotional pain starts to build up to a certain level. Like someone who cuts. They cut so that the pain of the cut will distract or take them away from the emotional pain. It’s their way to cope.”

Before he has a chance to comment, a Peruvian man totters over to us. “Can I have a seat? I just need to sit down,” he tells us in Spanish. He waves at the jug and the bag taking up space. Matt moves everything down to the ground. I scoot over and we make room for this man.
“I’m sorry to bother you. Sorry to bother you, señorita,” he says. He’s missing a couple teeth and his words are hard to follow, slurred and rough. “I have to take my medications. They cost a lot of money. If I don’t take them, I hear voices in my head. The voices started after the time I was in the army. Sometimes I feel they’re chasing me.” Matt and I can both tell this guy is truly tormented. “I just need a little money so I can buy my medications. Just a little tiny bit of money so I can buy some lunch, buy some medicine.”

I’m thinking it’s ironic that this man, with these problems would sit next to us to ask for money just after I started a conversation about psychological and emotional pain. I’m not heartless, I’m really not, but I know if I give him what I have then I won’t be able to pay my bus fare home. I don’t have uncontrollable voices in my head, but I also don’t have much to offer monetarily. I feel awful at this, my fierce stinginess. Guilt is another topic for another day.
Matt reaches into his pants pocket and pulls out all the change he has. “I’m sorry,” he tells the man. “I don’t have very much.” He slips the money into the man’s hand. The man’s face brightens. He looks at the wealth. “Look at all this money!” he says under his breath.  “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Señorita, for letting me take up your time. Thank you.” He pulls himself up. As he leaves I watch him with my heart breaking for the pain in the world.

“I wish I had more to give him,” Matt says.
I let out a soft whiff of air. “He said, ‘Look at all this money.’” I shake my head. “You gave him a lot. To him, that was a lot of money. More than he was expecting.”

“It was maybe three soles,” Matt says. Three soles being just over one U.S. dollar. And that, from one begged at “tourist”, is a fortune. What a world, yeah?
Left to ourselves again, I don’t know if I want to take my thread of thought back up. The contrast of my thinking and the reality of pain is so very real in the moment. I take the gourd when Matt offers it to me, take small sips and empty out the water before I hand it back. Mate is an Argentinian custom. From underneath my eyebrows, I watch the curious, suspicious, judging, and even accepting glances from the passerbys. Several men say, “Buena mate,” as they walk past. A mulleted guy and his girl give us appraising looks.

“They’re definitely Argentinian,” Matt says. “The mullet is a dead giveaway.”
A trio of English speaking tourists asks if we’d mind taking their photo. I stand to take the picture, and one of the ladies leans in at Matt. “Is that a hookah?” she asks.

He sets her straight about mate, I take the photos and we shoo them on.
Matt and I speak the same language, more or less. We have more cultural similarities to each other than we do to South America. But there are still differences.  Judgments. He has a very sarcastic wit at times. I have long stretches of silence. He doesn’t spare insults even as he acts under, what he says is the very British tradition of sorry, sorry, so sorry. I don’t rein in my thoughts or hesitate to take notes when I want to remember something for later—when I want to remember something to write about it later.

We’re talking about money versus need, trading versus gaining and profit, and social change. I take a breath, wanting to draw a picture about how Americans think about money or something. I have a point, a comparison, a way in which to give understanding for one mentality.
“Americans think,” I start.

“I don’t care about fucking Americans,” Matt interrupts with an intensity in his tone, and he continues without letting me cut in.
I’m surprised at my anger; it boils up quick in response. I’m not every American. And every American isn’t me. But this dismissal hits a little like a sucker punch to the gut. Because I am American. I’m not sure I need him to care about me, but there’s a ferocity in his words that cuts me off—locks me out. I raise my eyebrows and shut my mouth. I do love some of the ideals America espouses. I hate the ignorance that we get judged for so often. I love the tenacity. I despise the arrogance. We’re not perfect, but hearing the differences, comparing, contrasting, accepting--this, I feel, leads to understanding and potentially to change. I fume next to him on the bench. Marvel at this dark emotion that I don’t often experience, surprised at how I bristle at the insult. I keep silent and only half listen to him while I try to understand myself.

When he’s done, with a bit of apology in his voice he says, “What do the Americans think?”
“I might have lost the thread of it after you said you didn’t care,” I say. I shrug. My anger is gone. I think back to the place where my mind had been. I recapture the comparison I’d wanted to speak out. This time he listens.

We sit there and talk and drink mate.
There we are, two people from two different countries sitting side by side in Peru while practicing an Argentinian tradition. This is what living is. Being all people and nobody at all. Holding to a place and relating to people as humans, to humans as people.

When we’ve exhausted the hot water, we pack up.
“I might have some time Tuesday morning before I head out of town,” Matt says. “We could have mate in the park then if you’re free.”

“Sounds good,” I say, waving goodbye as I go to find the corner where my bus will be, “let me know. See you later.”
The bus isn’t as full on the way home. I settle into my seat, pay my fare, and think about emotions, pain, and about what it means to be human.

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