Philippine summers are full of festivals. Almost all major cities and provinces celebrate certain feasts of their local patron saints, complete with buntings, marching bands, street dancers, kids in flower costumes, and beauty pageants. But the provincial government of Ilocos Norte ditched these traditions during the feast of La Virgen Milagrosa and came up with something new: giant artworks at the desert that were later burned.
Held on May 10th as the highlight of week-long La Virgen Milagrosa Festival, Himala sa Buhangin (Miracle at The Sand Dunes) awed more than 5000 people with its massive art installations, Moroccan inspired setting and unusual car racing.
Paoay Sand Dunes is the location of a Filipino classic film Himala/Miracle. Released on the same year I was born, this 30-year old movie starred superstar Nora Aunor with a scene shouting “Walang himala!” (“There are no miracles!”). Other movies shot there were Oliver Stone’s “Born on The Fourth of July,” Australian action flick “Mad Max” and Roger Corman’s and Cirio H. Santiago’s “Stryker.” Thus, there are actually miracles in this place.
Revolutionary artists Gerilya Artist Collective created murals with the scene and face of the iconic Nora Aunor, as well as Lam-Ang, a character in a local epic.
The sand dunes is already a tourist spot, and some of the reasons people go there is to go 4×4 leisure driving, sandboard and roll down the dunes in a Zorb! Crazy, right? We were not able to check the sandboarding because it was in a different spot from the festival area. With an enormous land area, it would be tiresome to walk in a desert on a high noon. Riding 4×4 is an option but most of them were already on standby for a racing competition.
Moroccan-inspired tents were set up fronting the stage, giving the VIPs a perfect view of the performers that night.
The major attractions of the festival are the gigantic installations by Leeroy New. Leeroy, an avant-garde Filipino artist, made them using bamboos tied by abaca fiber. Chrysalis is the biggest of the four, it acted as the scenic background for the stage. It was designed and made with the galleon that brought the Virgen Milagrosa to the province on as the inspiration.
The first idea was to set the Chrysalis on fire on the festival night ala The Burning Man, but they found it too amazing to be charred. So Leeroy New created three more bamboo installations, a scene in the sea with a capsized boat.
In a desert there is usually an oasis, but in sand dunes of Paoay there is a beach. Yes, a beach! About a couple of hundred steps from the tents are sand castles created by teams from different towns in Ilocos Norte for a competition. While looking at the sea and facing the sunset, you will realize you can have the both worlds there.
When the sun has set, people started gathering around the stage and watched the performances of local bands. Then, belly dancers suddenly appeared and danced with the crowd including Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos. Few more bands performed and then it’s time for some fire dancing. They fire breathe for five minutes or more then they started running to the three other bamboo installation.
I panicked because I was on my last two shots on my Canon SLR. The most important part of the night is going to happen in few seconds, and I still need to look for an unexposed film inside my bag and run hundred meters to capture the burning of the bamboos.
Well, I was sure I can photograph the burning installations but I want to atleast capture how the dancers start setting them on fire. Luckily, I got there on time for the fisherman and the boat.
Ending the festival with an elegant firework display.
The Himala sa Buhanging Festival was one event I cannot forget. It was something new and memorable. Who cares if it was too hot, atleast I was able to experience gigantic arts upclose