Shocking loss of unlikely friend – the indigenous Ati Chief

theo and chief ernesto coching of the ati tribe in mainland malay, philippines

It was a rough Easter week. 

A friend is dead. 

His body was lost for days in the sea before being recovered and identified.

The circumstances incomprehensible, sickening, inhumane, and unjust.

I’m filled with sorrow and rage.

ati chief ernesto coching of the ati indigenous tribe in the philippines

My friend, Ernesto Coching was the Chieftain of the indigenous Philippine Ati tribe.

Our friendship was perhaps the most unlikely imaginable. In a normal world our paths would never have crossed.

But thanks to the COVID crisis, I spent the better part of two years with Ernesto and the Ati. They changed me and my view of myself and the world.

As early retired, global wanderers, we rode out COVID in Malay, Aklan, Panay, Philippines. It is there that I came to know Chief Ernesto; working with him – shoulder to shoulder, day after day, riding in his motorcycle & sidecar, planning, financing, and executing improvement projects for the stability and betterment of his impoverished tribe.

He spoke just enough English so that we could communicate. Still, we connected. He was older than me – in his mid-60s, a tiny man – barely five feet tall and 100 pounds – but he had huge strength and dedication and love for his people, and a smile and laugh that I will never forget.

It was my honor to know and help him. He was a good man / husband / father / grandfather / brother / uncle / leader / manager / and friend. I’m heartsick, but proud to know I played a part in his legacy.

The accounts of the accident which led to the Chief’s death have been provided by his family and other friends who are in the Philippines.

I’ve received the depressing details in Varanasi, India — where my wife and I continue our slow-travel lifestyle.

The Chief was innocently fishing with his son-in-law, Ricky, in the waters near Boracay Island in the central Philippines; something Chief Ernesto enjoyed and has done hundreds – even thousands of times

Somehow, in the darkness at about 9:00 p.m., their small outrigger boat was struck by a speedboat from the luxury Shangri-la Resort as it ferried guests to the company’s exclusive beachfront paradise.

Despite the collision, and with the Ati men in the water, the resort boat left the scene! It did return some time later and Ricky was rescued. But the Chief could not be found.

The speedboat driver was later arrested and jailed. A vigil for Ernesto began. Two days later, divers recovered his body from the water near the crash scene.

An investigation is underway. So is the shifting of blame. Already, officials have mentioned the lack of lights, inadequate life jackets, and improper licensing as factors.

The Shangri-La is boasting publicly about how they are ‘assisting’ the Chief’s family. They further point out they sent a second speedboat to the scene to help with the search.

All of that may be true. But in my view, the only reason Chief Ernesto is dead is because the driver of the hit and run boat prioritized the comfort of his wealthy passengers (nightly rates at Shangri-La start at $435). He didn’t want to delay their vacation by a few minutes.

Instead of following standard boating convention and basic human decency and immediately assisting the victims — he left the scene and a man to die.

theo and ati tribe members; theo and chieftain

The Ati are the ‘original’ Filipinos. Anthropologists believe they migrated to the islands via ‘land bridge’ some 20,000 years ago. They have fished and foraged near Boracay for aeons. At one time, the whole of spectacular Boracay Island was theirs alone.

Sadly, like native American Indians, the Ati are now a marginalized minority. They rank near the bottom of the economic, educational, and social structure of the Philippines. It’s why we were willing and eager to help them during the difficult COVID lockdown period.

Since leaving the Philippines one year ago, we’ve remained in Facebook contact with the handful of Ati who speak good English. 

The tribe is devastated by the events of the past week. And we extend our deep condolences to all the members. This is certainly NOT how we wish to be reminded of our many friendships.

theo and tribe members; chieftan wears shirt that says, 'we love boracay.'

I continue to work on a book about the incredible COVID experience we shared with Chief Ernesto and his tribe. The book will recount how with the help of generous donors from around the world we were able to make numerous valuable and lasting improvements in the daily lives of the Ati. Of course, Chief Ernesto was instrumental in it all. He rallied and motivated his people throughout the COVID hardships. He was an inspiration to me. 

In the end, all we can do is mourn and seethe at the unnecessary loss of the Chief – my friend. He didn’t deserve to be abandoned in the sea, left to drown, callously killed — so rich people could immediately enjoy a beach or buffet or bar. 

With prayer and contemplation and time, I hope my disgust will subside. And God willing, there will be some justice for his family and people.

theo in chief's trike; chief working on ati land in mainland malay, philippines

Thanks for reading, “Shocking loss of unlikely friend – the indigenous Ati Chief.”

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