“Mate! Mate! Anyone want mate?” I woke up to a chorus of this every morning for a semester in college—perhaps the only alarm clock that has ever successfully gotten me out of bed.
Yerba mate (pronounced “YER-ba MAH-tay”) is a well-caffeinated South American herbal tea-like beverage—a strong, earthy, nutty brew. It’s often enjoyed in a group setting, traditionally served hot in a dried calabash gourd and sipped with a metal straw called a bombilla. You drink a gourdful, refill the water and pass the gourd to the person on your right.
“Come and get your mate!” My neighbor in the next dorm room, Joe, stocked 5-pound bags of mate for the sole purpose of sharing with the rest of us. Each morning, he’d heat up a kettle of water and make his way down the hallway, inviting anyone who was awake for a gourdful.
The passing of the gourd became quickly became the highlight of my mornings—waking up to Joe’s voice in the hallway and stumbling next door, pajama-clad, groggy-headed and eager for caffeinated inspiration, to join the gathering group. We’d sit quietly and drink from the gourd until it was time to go to class, soaking up the energy of the mate and the warmth of the morning Colorado sun.
That semester, Joe and his mate—combined with his easy laughter, his knack for making anyone feel welcome and his pure selflessness and generosity—turned disparate circles of friends into a dorm of always-open doors. The way he brought us all together was unlike anything I’d ever seen before—and maybe even ever since.
* * * * *
I knew Joe only briefly, for that one semester as my neighbor. The following spring break, 8 years ago last week, he got caught in a storm while kayaking off the coast of Baja California and drowned.
My friend Ellie and I were studying in Chicago when a friend called us with the tragic news. We didn’t know how to grieve, so far away from campus and our friends in mourning. So we did the best we could: we scoured the phonebook (this was before most businesses had a useful web presence, mind you) and called every coffeeshop in town until we found one that served what we needed.
And that’s where we went—to celebrate Joe and the life he had lived to its fullest and brightest—over a shared gourd of mate.