A Festival of Scarecrows

 Isabela makes tourism a priority through a very unique festival

Manila Bulletin Sunday - Published February 4, 2018, 12:05 AM

By Art Sta. Ana

You’d think it was something right out of a production for a Jay-Z or a Justin Timberlake concert. The stage was massive, and the lights were 10 times as bright and colorful as those of the best clubs in Manila. The sounds were booming, and the beats were infectious. Only, instead of some foreign act gracing the stage that was set up in the middle of the Ilagan Sports Complex in Ilagan City, it was the delegates of the 22 participating Isabela cities and municipalities that were giving their all on and around the platform. For most of the participants, it was the performance of a lifetime, and they left everything on the stage during the Festival Dance Competition. There was no shortage of energy, and it made for some of the most amazing display of dances and cheers one would ever have the privilege of witnessing. It was one of the many activities held during the Bambanti Festival in the province of Isabela, a six-day long festival of festivals, grandiose enough to rival the best ones in the country. It was the ultimate showcase of the diligent, creative, spiritual, and resilient Isabelan spirit, a spirit so determined that not even the constant downpour of rain can stop. Nothing to be Scared of Scarecrows

“Bambanti” literally means “scarecrow” in Ilonggo, one of the dialects spoken in Isabela, the Philippines’ second biggest province in terms of land area. The bambanti, while wrongly perceived as terrifying symbols of death by some, has become the iconic symbol of the province’s status as the agricultural center of the country, it being the top producer of corn and one of the primary sources of rice for local consumption and for exporting. This scarecrow festival was first conceived in 1997 by the local government, and Isabelans were quick to embrace the uniqueness of the festivities, lining up the neighborhoods and streets of this 34-town strong province with stick figures dressed in hand-me-down clothes that resemble a person. These scarecrows have been traditionally used to fend off birds and pests from the fields of rice and corn plants, and they have come to represent Isabela in the most distinctive of ways.

The 2018 version of the festival was held from Jan. 22 to 27 this year, centered around the theme of “Isabela kong mahal” (Isabela, my love). Some of the highlights of the festival include the agri-eco tourism exhibit and sale, a festival-long mini showcase where different cities and municipalities in the province each had booths that exhibited their best local products. Gigantic loud and proud Bambantis were also on display at each booth, and the best ones were later on given awards at the closing of the festival. A culinary competition was held on January 25, where new uses of goat meat, one of the primary meats used in Isabelan cuisine, were explored in front of the scrutinizing eyes of culinary experts that served as the competition’s judges.

On the fifth day of the festival, the Street Dance competition and Festival Dance showcase was held in the Ilagan Sports Complex, a spectacle held in front of the adoring crowd that swelled up to the thousands as locals from all parts of Isabela came in support of their towns’ representatives. Dance groups, whose performers are of different ages and were dressed in their well-coordinated, beautifully spruced up versions of a bambanti, filled the entire stadium with festive dances and merriment as the afternoon bled into the night, all of them vying for the coveted title of showdown champion. After all, not only was prestige up for grabs, but a sizeable cash prize awaited the performers and the town that won the contest. Even as the little drizzles turned into hard-to-ignore rain showers, the performers’ spirits were not to be dampened, and the showed continued on as celebrity judges like renowned designer Albert Andrada and multi-awarded director Frank Rivera watched on.

At the closing of the festival on Jan. 27, the city of Cauayan was awarded as the overall winner. A grand concert followed, where Ogie Alcasid, Jona, Elisse Joson, Mccoy De Leon, and Fourth Impact performed to the delight of the weary but elated Isabelans.

Beyond Bambanti

The festival may serve as the biggest draw for tourism in the region, but there are lots of different reasons for Filipinos and foreigners alike to visit Isabela. It is, after all, a curious mix of coastal towns and mountain ranges, where both the Sierra Madre mountain ranges of its west border and the 113-kilometer stretch of its Pacific beaches on the east make for some beautiful choices for both land and sea adventurers alike. Ilagan City at the heart of the province is where the fastest zip line in the country can be found, along with the calm stone formations of the Sta. Victoria Caves.

The Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park is a favorite destination of trekkers and hikers, while the heart-shaped Honeymoon Island in Divilacan town is on schedule to open later this year. Its beautiful crystal clear waters and pristine white sand is said to rival that of Balesin and Boracay, and the local government is excited with the development that is happening with what is projected to be the next big beach destination in the country.

“We’ve always been known for our agricultural contribution to the country, and now we are really trying to offer Isabela as a tourism haven,” said the province’s first lady Mary Ann Dy, wife of Governor Faustino Dy, who has been very active in promoting the tourist spots of Isabela. “Whether it’s for the Bambanti festival or our beaches or our mountain ranges, there is just so much that you can discover here.”

Isabela is indeed full of wonderful suprises. So whether the scarecrows of the Bambanti Festivals are being celebrated, or whether the mountains or the beaches are calling for a quick day escapade, the province is one huge adventure waiting to be discovered.