“Do I have to try it?”
“Just take one to be polite. Then if you don’t like it you don’t have to take anymore.” The seasoned missionary beside me smiled at the lovely Brazilian lady handing the chimarrão to her. I watched nervously as she lifted it to her mouth and got a good look at what was coming my way. It was beautiful in its own unique way. The cuia was made of a gourd which they had hollowed out and dried. The outside was decorated with gaucho designs typical of the cowboy culture of southern Brazil. But, it wasn’t the outside that had me concerned. Inside the gourd was what looked to me like a pile of green dust and twigs. Somehow it was packed against the side of the cuia and they had poured hot water down the other side. I watched as Gudrun lifted the cuia to her mouth and sipped slowly from the metal straw that stood in the hot green tea.
“What does it taste like?” I whispered, trying to not draw attention to myself.
“It’s somewhat bitter. Be careful not to burn yourself on the bomba.” At my strange look, she explained, “The metal straw. It has a sieve on the bottom that keeps the dust and twigs from the erva getting up in your mouth.”
I wasn’t too sure about this. It went against everything I had ever learned in my hygienic Canadian culture. One never should share cups with anyone – germs, you know! From what I could see, this cuia, gourd-thing went from person to person being refilled with hot water and handed off to the next person. I never even saw anyone wipe the straw. “Don’t worry. They say the tip of the straw is made of silver. The hot water kills the germs. It’s not a problem.” Ok, now I was really worried! I heard the slurping as Gudrun drained the tea and handed it back to the hostess with a smile.
Be gracious! Smile nicely! You can do it! My background has its origins in England. Tea is black tea with sugar and a drop of milk. I don’t go for flavoured teas of any kind. And this? I took a deep breath as the chimarrão came in my direction. I smiled as I accepted the cuia and tried to act casual. Drink one, she had said. I bravely took one sip, grimaced and handed it back to Gudrun. No thanks! That’s not MY cup of tea! I noticed a few sly smiles around the circle but tried to pretend nothing had happened. I will make it through this day! I will! I’ll just keep smiling and acting like I know what I’m doing.
Learning the rules of hospitality of a new culture is not the easiest thing to do. As the years passed I learned to love the cultural customs of hospitality of the south. As we arrived at any friend’s house, we would be warmly welcomed with three friendly kisses on alternating cheeks. They would pull a few chairs out onto the balcony or yard and invite you to sit down. The wife would disappear into the kitchen for a few minutes and soon would return with a chimarrão and a thermos of hot water. We were now ready to sit and talk for hours if we wished, as long as the chimarrão kept making its rounds. I used to love driving around town just as the sun was setting and seeing all the families sitting around in the cool of the evenings outside of their homes with their friends and neighbors as the chimarrão made its rounds. What wonderful conversations we had in those circles.
Whether you offer chimarrão, coffee and tea, cafézinho, chai, coffee beans to suck on, or just a cup of water, it’s the heart attitude that is most important. People matter. As we make people feel welcome and special, we begin to build relationships. That’s what it’s all about. We need each other!
I think I will pull out my cuia this afternoon, fill it with that lovely green erva, heat the water to just before boiling and sit down with my husband to reminisce awhile about our years in southern Brazil. After that I need to sit down and write a letter to a few of those old friends whose friendships we forged in those chimarrão circles. I’m awfully glad I tried it!
Gaucho Vocabulary list:
Gaucho – cowboy from southern Brazil
Chimarrão – the tea drunk from a cuia
Cuia – the hollowed out gourd which serves as a “teacup”
Erva –green powder and twigs which make the tea
Bomba – metal straw with a round sieve at the bottom
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