Friday, October 8, 2021

The Hitchhikers Guide to Yerba Mate: An Interview with Marcia Lewandowski


Marcia Lewandowski, Author

Marcia Lewandowski is a world traveler and seasoned author. I had the great opportunity to connect with Marcia and ask about her new book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Yerba Mate: The Culture, Ceremony & Curiosities of South America's Favorite Tea (Monday Creek Publishing, September 2021). 

Welcome, Marcia!


GM: What is the premise for your new book The Hitchhiker's Guide to Yerba Mate

ML:  Provide an entertaining and interesting look at the stories, culture and traditions surrounding the age-old custom of drinking yerba mate, a South American tea drank in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and parts of Brazil, Chile, and Bolivia. There is a rich history and folklore, timeless symbolism, and unique acts of community associated with yerba mate that I wanted to record to on the printed page, to ensure that its legacy does not get lost for prosperity. 


GM: What other books have you written?  


GM: As an aide worker you have traveled the world. Where have you traveled? Where in the world is your favorite place to be?

ML:  My family and I spent 8 years in Bolivia, where The Hitchhiker's Guide to Yerba Mate was first envisioned. As the title of the book implies, I have hitchhiked in several mate-drinking South American countries. Now we are planted in Cambodia; we have a contract for two more years working with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) as Peace program coordinators. 

          It not a certain place that we love to call home, but rather it is a type of place. We do best, and are at our happiest, when we are close to natural areas, that are green and flourishing. We love hiking in forests and appreciating the beauty of lakes, streams, and mountains.  We appreciate rural agricultural land, grazing animals and thriving croplands. In grew up in Minnesota and living in all this year around heat also makes me think kindly of stark black and white winter landscapes.

I do miss having my children closer, they have both left the nest and have made their own place in the world. But being with my husband centers me.  I tell him: “Put your arms around me and I am home.” 


GM: You are currently in Cambodia. People probably do not realize the perils and harsh conditions you face daily. Describe a typical day…

ML: I don’t think there are perils that we face. (The word peril reminds me of a skit I once starred in, “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop” when she went from one crisis to the next, with only the handsome defender, Dudley DoRight, to save her.)  

We do face the challenges anyone would face in a new foreign culture: First and foremost is learning a new language with a different alphabet. And so many slang words!  For example: As you all can well imagine, knowing basic numbers when shopping and paying for my purchases in the street markets is important.  I dutifully memorized all the numbers from one to hundred, but still I struggled to understand what I owed, why was this proving to be so difficult?  Picture my surprise when my Khmer teacher (many months into my studies) said that the women in the marketplace always use slang numbers which sounded completely different from the “regular” numbers I had practiced so well. Couldn’t this have been mentioned sooner?)   

There are also new weather patterns to adjust to (constantly 80-90% humidity day and night all year round) and monsoon rains that come as floods.  And the tiny mosquitos, that carry many diseases, that constantly circle my ankles. (Especially when I am cooking and not at liberty to swat them!). 

New foods are always an adventure, fried crickets are enjoyed here, as well as other insects and spiders. And every weed along the roadside is a desirable green to chop and used in their cooking.  Nothing that I can’t adjust to, but what I really miss is cheese. A life without cheese is not perilous but it is a sadder existence. Never take cheese for granted!

          We have had close encounters with some Cambodian wildlife.  A large fruit bat was using our kitchen ceiling to hang in while eating. He (she?) brought his own food. We have since discouraged him from using that location, but we were gentle, since they are an endangered species here. We have a pair of monkeys that swing by our flat in the early morning, and geckos (large blue lizards that climb up walls) that serenade us, but they are more endearing than dangerous. The call of the gecko sounds like its name and can predict whether one will marry or not. It’s also considered good luck if a gecko is in the same room and calls out seven or more times, three or less is bad luck. Perhaps the only perilous creature was a wasp the size of a clothes pin that was flying around our heads last night.


GM: What are you currently reading?

ML: I am currently re-reading The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. The story begins in Amsterdam in 1972, when a teenage girl discovers a medieval book and a cache of yellowed letters. Jumping between centuries, the book blends together the history and folklore of the fifteenth-century reign of Vlad the Impaler and his fictional equivalent Count Dracula. I enjoy it every time I read.


GM: What are you currently writing? 

ML: Now that I am though making edits on The Hitchhiker's Guide to Yerba Mate, an endless process until time finally ran out, I can finally let go to pursue other projects. This book is, and will remain, the book that I was born to write, written as a tribute, in so many ways, to some of the most defining and beloved days of my life.  I was young with boundless energy in pursuit of adventure, both my children still called our house their home, and we were surrounded by friends and a welcoming (old world exotic) community doing meaningful, interesting work at the very ends of the earth. 

I hope someday to write a book featuring classic parables from cultures around the world.  Ancient tales that teach us timeless lessons in a short story.  Right now, I am in the process of collecting and sorting through the possibilities. 


GM: What advice do you have for novice writers? 

ML: I will borrow some thoughts of Hemingway...

1.    “Prepare to waste a lot of paper.” Of course, this is different now, and the trees are happier for it, but the sentiment is still true, there will be a lot of rewrites. Creating a piece worth reading — whether it’s a story, a poem, or a book — will take far more time than you expect.  

2.    “Strive to write something that will outlive you; if [your writing] is good enough, it will last as long as there are human beings.” Writing is one of the best ways for any of us to leave a legacy about something you care about. (If you read the titles of my books, you can see I love folklore, and the essence of history and people they contain.)  Writing offers intrinsic benefits. Whenever I finish a piece, I feel a surge of pride in what I have accomplished. Creating something from nothing is a worthwhile experience, all on its own. Writing is one of the best ways for any of us to leave a personal legacy. 

A thought from Tolstoy  (NOTE: This is NOT from Tolstoy!  I made it up, it just seems to fit with the way he wrote.)

  • Never be satisfied with writing just 20 words when you can use 100.  Of course, this is not true, rather the opposite is the gold standard.  I wonder who his editor was?  

GM: What is your favorite thing about Yerba Mate? 

ML:  The favorite thing about mate is sense of community and belonging that being part of a mate circle brings. It is not something to be rushed; it is an act of celebrating the moment with others. I was once told that there is no place on earth where the drinking of a few hundred milliliters of water takes so long and is so thoroughly enjoyed. I agree!

Connect with Marcia:

Amazon Author Page

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Yerba Mate

From the back cover: Whether you are a veteran mate drinker, enthusiastic student of foreign cultures or are simply considering adopting a new unique pastime, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Yerba Mate was written for you. This book is a practical manual on how to authentically drink yerba mate and a deep dive into the ceremony, hospitality and engaging cultural norms and nuances of the mate circle. Read about yerba mate’s not so insignificant role in history, its evolving folklore, and its role in promoting health physically, socially and spiritually. The author learned the art of drinking yerba mate while living in a tiny village in the Bolivian Chaco. She was introduced to the broader world of yerba mate while hitchhiking through the other mate-drinking hot spots of South America.

Illustrations by Nathan Vieland and Kelly Lincoln


Illustration (c) Nathan Vieland

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