Return to Kurong – the Ati mountaintop village we helped in pandemic days

“I have been to the mountaintop. I have seen the promised land.”

A quote respectfully borrowed from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But it popped into my head as I sat here reminiscing in the Philippines.

The mountaintop and land I’m talking about relate to another minority peoples: the indigenous Ati tribe of Malay, Aklan – here on the island of Panay.

This is the place where my wife and I donated and helped and worked for more than two years during the Covid pandemic. (My mom was here for 10 months then too).

It’s a special and emotional place to return now — more than two years after we departed in early 2022 as the world reopened to vagabond travelers like us.

This mountaintop is called “Kurong” (I’m told it means ‘curly hair’). By my measurement, it’s really a 600 foot high hilltop – and part of a sliver of C-shaped land that has indeed been promised to the Ati by the Philippine government.

As of June 2024, the tribe is still waiting for the ‘title/ownership’ transfer; a promise nearly 10 years unfulfilled.

The promised land might also be called the ‘land where time stands still’. The conditions here are mostly exactly the same as when we left. 

The same grueling, uphill, 30-minute hike over treacherous terrain is required to get here. The same insanely hot and humid jungle encroaches everywhere. The same Ati families occupy the tiny primitive nipa huts. The same employment and financial difficulties beset the Ati tribe.

Thankfully, the improvement projects we financed (with the help of generous overseas donors) during Covid to help the tribe remain mostly the same too. 

As I first hiked up, I proudly followed the mile-long overhead electric service line we brought to the Kurong community. I could even hear faint music on the wind, booming Ati speaker systems ahead.

Half-way up, I noted a part of the heavy-duty plastic water distribution pipe we installed. And a hillside family confirmed the drinking water still flows to the spigot we placed outside their home. Up at the central Kurong plaza, I was happy to see kids easily filling plastic jugs at another water spigot. Before our water project, everyone had to walk 20 minutes each way on a steep dirt path to the spring to fetch water. The collection, pump, storage, and distribution systems we designed seem almost taken for granted now. Wonderful! It still works!

At the top, I was happy to see the roof rebuild we sponsored for the community ‘storm shelter’ remains solid and ready for the coming rainy/typhoon season.

And all along the way, I smiled when  seeing some of the hundreds of fruit trees (some already bearing) that we paid for and planted with the tribe back in mid-2021 as the Covid virus Delta strain spread here and around the world.

On the downside, our original henhouse and retail egg operation is no more. The building is in tatters. It actually wrapped up with the birds sold or eaten before we left in April 2022. The  local egg competition fierce, profit margins slim, and Ati management challenged.

The gardening project we initiated has sputtered out as well. The numerous vegetable seeds we purchased lasted several growing seasons. After that, the jungle reclaimed the garden plots.

Similarly, the playground and basketball half-court we constructed are in disrepair. I suggested we could make some repairs during my current stay through June.

Finally, the massive ‘replacement’ access bridge constructed by the Ati with our backing is worryingly weathered. Still usable for careful foot traffic – but no motorbikes.

Surveying the scenes was satisfying – but surreal. It’s hard to believe such efforts and friendships occurred in my life, in my travels. It all feels like a dream.

Of course, always on my mind during Ati visits and interactions is the Ati Chief: Ernesto Coching — my friend and co-director of all our Covid-time projects. The chief was killed in a boating tragedy in April 2023 while we were in India. He was a good leader, friend, husband, father, grand-father. I think of him often — and Kurong will never be the same without him. His daughter, Hanna Lee, now holds the title of Ati chieftain.

How did all of those Earth Vagabonds projects hold up?

After hugs and selfies and broken English conversations with many of the Kurong Ati (who were stunned to see me again), I sat in the shade at the central plaza and relived my years of involvement. Tears flowed. Roosters crowed. The hot winds blew. Ati speakers blared disco music.

Another quote from Dr. King’s mountaintop speech ran through my mind, printed below in honor of Chief Ernesto.

“And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Incidentally, here’s a link to the full transcription and audio of Dr. King’s ‘mountaintop’ speech – given April 3, 1968. It is indisputably one of the most powerful and haunting speeches in American history. Dr. King was assassinated the next day at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

The speech was specific to the Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968 and the ongoing civil movement in America at the time. But it seems much of the text could be applied in 2024 to America or the Philippines or the Middle East or anywhere people seek equality and justice.

Rest in peace, Chief Ernesto and Dr. King.

As always, be thankful and generous, happy trails & more beer.

Life is NOW!

Thanks for reading, “Return to Kurong – the Ati mountaintop village we helped in pandemic days.”

About Theo

Tedly (Theo) retired early from the news business to wander the planet with wife Ellen. He enjoys exploring all Earth has to offer: jungles and beaches, volcanoes and deserts – always drinking beer along the way.

Visit the full Ati work archives.

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