Skip to content

Postcard #2: Tanglad in the Philippines

Lemongrass juice: it tastes like it should be sour. Why isn’t it sour?

Mel Hattie
Mel Hattie
3 min read
Postcard #2: Tanglad in the Philippines

This is postcard two of four of a non-fiction summer reads food series I’m sharing. Postcard #1 was Bosanska Kafa in Bosnia. Today’s postcard is from the Philippines.

Postcard #2: Tanglad in the Philippines

The bus is air-conditioned, but it’s still hot. I’m packed in with a group of other foreign writers and content creators, bumping along the dirt road in Angat. By the time we enter the high gates to the farm, we’ve driven about an hour north from the dense, packed-in downtown of Manila to arrive here, at the promised farm.

As we enter the farm, the bus wheels jump from packed dirt to the compound’s asphalt roads, bumpy to smooth, and our bodies relax and adjust in what seems like the physical sensation of leaving poverty and hardship behind to enter what we’ve been told is a dream of Filipino entrepreneurship.

We roll up to the main pavilion, and when the bus doors open, the sweet, hot, and sticky kiss of jungle air greets us like an overfamiliar house guest.

On either side of the road through the farm grow fields of lemongrass. Knee- to waist-height, tall, green, and thin—palm-width. Almost like beach grass. The stalks are thick and round, like giant garlic or green onions. The air around them smells sweet and lemony.

When I think about the Philippines, my memories are a conflicted mess: equal parts carefree selfies with friends beside hiking signposts and swimming in peerless blue oceans, and also having late-night chats nose-deep in beers under fluorescent lights about how the nascent tourism industry is completely overwhelmed, raw sewage gets pumped into the ocean, and local culture is pantomimed for tourists. There’s my own discomfort with my wealth relative to the people I meet here. The question of what it means that their hopes are reforming to match the dreams of neoliberal capitalism.

I’m in the main pavilion at the farm, looking at a giant technicolour portrait of its middle-aged, male, millionaire founder. It’s painted on a grey concrete slab. One of the farm hosts comes up to me with a tray of tanglad—lemongrass juice.

I sip the cold, fragrant drink, bergs of blessed ice clanking around in the already sweating glass. I stare at the millionaire and he stares back at me, dressed all in white with a beard, Colonel Sanders–style, skipping through the flowers while holding hands with children. Our hosts start heaping glowing praise on him and I can’t help but be repulsed by the place he seems to occupy as the cult-like martyr.

But my disgust is confused by the fact that the people who live and work here seems happy. Certainly the stories they tell me of their lives before would confirm that where they are now is better than where they came from.

But the “local entrepreneurs” we meet seem to be just props in a tourist business. They don’t own their businesses any more than a Disney World employee owns Mickey Mouse. Most of their “businesses” are actually owned by French investors in the farm, and the locals just work for them. We’re given the chance to interview everyone. Nothing is off-limits, but I can’t bring myself to do the hard journalist thing and ask, “why do you call yourselves entrepreneurs when you just work for these people?” The light in their eyes and joy at describing their jobs is too genuine, so I don’t ask. I just can’t.

Maybe I’m the one who’s messed up, equating entrepreneurship with ownership and agency. Maybe this kind of pro-social venture happening here really is just plain good and there’s nothing off about it. But it tickles me in a strange way I can’t really place, like sitting down for a picnic and chasing an ant all over your body that you never seem to catch.

The young teen entrepreneurs are plucked from rural villages around the Philippines, hand-chosen to attend this millionaire’s entrepreneurship boarding school for youth, where they seem destined for a better future—so long as they remain virgins. I want to shake them and be like, “Isn’t it messed up that this old rich man tells you who you can and can’t fuck???” But they just smile up at me, a smile that tells me, “Oh, poor Mel, you don’t know. The alternative is much worse.” Their parents are so proud of them. The kids are laughing and sharing their food with me, scraping sticky rice from palm leaves. Then, after they go to bed, one of the matrons that watches them tells me they often cry out in their sleep for their missed parents and families.

Everywhere I go on the farm I’m given lemongrass juice. The drink that smells like tick spray. It’s like drinking citronella candles. I keep expecting someone on the farm to run up to me and tell me how much they hate it there. How much they hate me. The whole time, I’m clamping down on my straw, sucking down the buzzing, fragrant drink while turning corners and wincing, expecting a psychic blow. I’m sipping in all that’s around me, anticipating a sour bite that never comes.

Blanket Fort