Why Tegal?

51 comments
Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

The former headquarters of the Semarang-Cheribon Stoomtram Maatshappij in Tegal

To my international readers the name Tegal might sound distantly foreign, but those from Indonesia would almost certainly have heard of it. It’s a city in the western part of Central Java whose residents speak a dialect of Javanese that is so distinct compared to other varieties of this regional language. While most Javanese produce sounds in their mouth using their tongue, roof of the mouth, teeth, and lips, the people of Tegal and its surrounding areas use their throat heavily. The result of this is a version of Javanese that sounds… hilarious.

The TV industry capitalized on this really well and in the 1990s and early 2000s a prominent comedian with a thick Tegalese accent appeared frequently on screens over millions of households across Indonesia. Whenever she entered a scene and started talking, her fellow comedians would immediately laugh, and so would those watching her from home. I don’t know why the people from this part of Java talk like that.

Why, Tegal?

Fast forward to 2003, a time I was already living on my own in Bandung during my university years, when one day I suddenly got a phone call from my mother who had something important to tell me.

“Bama, your father has been transferred to Tegal.”

Due to his job as a prosecutor for the government, moving around cities in Indonesia every six or seven years was something my father had to do, and my mother and I were used to it. What struck me most about my mother’s announcement that day was not the transfer itself, but rather where he would be stationed next.

Of all places, why Tegal?

Months after my parents settled into their new place, I visited them during the summer break. Of all my first impressions about this coastal city, one thing I remember most was the sultry air – it was so unbearably hot and humid I was very much in shock for the first few days. But you were born and raised in a tropical country, you may think. Well, yes. But the previous two cities where my parents used to live prior to moving to Tegal had more temperate climes where the mercury almost never rose beyond 30 degrees Celsius.

The other thing about Tegal I will never forget is how I had to look down most of the time fearing that I would offend anyone because I couldn’t stop laughing every time I heard the locals talking to each other. That accent is just so… comical.

Despite the oppressive heat, my parents tried to introduce me to what their new city had to offer. Tasikmalaya – their previous city – with a population of more than twice as much was significantly bigger than Tegal. But the latter already had two malls – considered a sign of progress in many places in Indonesia – and we surely checked them out not only to see what they had, but also to take advantage of the air conditioning.

My parents also made sure I sampled the local delicacies, some of which proved to be an acquired taste although I never had problems with any of them since my very first bite. “I really don’t like it, but you seem to enjoy it,” a close friend of mine from university who was in town said to me when we tried kupat bongkok. I can’t blame him. Among many other ingredients, this breakfast dish is made from over-fermented tempeh, which gives kupat bongkok its funky taste. It’s admittedly not for everyone.

Tegal was (and still is) a compact city and there wasn’t much to see. However, one building caught my attention and intrigued me for years since the first time I laid eyes on it. Whenever my father took me to the city’s train station to go back to Bandung, he always drove past this huge structure – much bigger than most buildings in Tegal – which appeared to have been constructed during Dutch colonial times. Its white façade always looked rather sad with patches of peeled-off paint and mold stains on its surface. The name of the local university was emblazoned above its main entrance, though I could only get glimpses of all these through the narrow openings between the big trees that stood between this structure and the street.

Such imposing Dutch-era structures are usually found in big cities like Jakarta, Bandung or Semarang. But then, out of nowhere, I saw one here. Of all places to build it, why Tegal?

Kupat bongkok for breakfast

The Great Mosque of Tegal viewed from Pancasila Park near the train station

Gedung Birao, as the locals call it, was completed in 1913

Tegal train station, completed five years after Gedung Birao

The arrival/departure hall of the train station

After more than ten years, I was finally able to see this handsome building clearly

It was not until several years ago, long after my parents had left Tegal for Semarang, that I finally learned about a railway company called the Semarang-Cheribon Stoomtram Maatschappij (SCS). It was one of three major Dutch railway companies that dominated train services on Java from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. All of them built their rail network from Semarang to different parts of the island: the NIS (the biggest of the three) connected Semarang with Java’s hinterland; the SJS served port cities to the east of Semarang; and the SCS focused on the west. While both the NIS and SJS were headquartered in Semarang, curiously the SCS was run from Tegal, some 70 km to the east of Cheribon (present-day Cirebon) and more than 150 km to the west of Semarang.

Why Tegal? Why didn’t the SCS build their headquarters in Semarang or Cirebon? This is a question for which I have yet to find the answer.

Over in Jakarta, Tegal is often associated with blue-collar workers as many of them who now live in the Indonesian capital hail from this Central Javan city. This includes taxi drivers, servers at local restaurant chains, domestic helpers, as well as those working at construction sites and cheap food joints serving low-wage employees. Because of this, to put it bluntly, Jakartans often look down on the people coming from Tegal, unfortunately.

But for my family, Tegal is a part of our memories, although I only went there on holidays. My mother recalls that Tegal was where my late father had the best time of his career, and I remember some of the delicious dishes she used to make there but are no longer cooked at home for various reasons. So, when she proposed to revisit Tegal, I easily said yes.

Last December, when Java was already well into the rainy season, I picked a day that – according to weather forecasts – seemed to have a good chance of turning out sunny. To make the most of our day, we left Semarang early in the morning and arrived in Tegal a little over two hours later. Our first stop was the area near the train station, for it is where the former headquarters of the SCS is located (locally known as ‘Gedung Birao’) and also where we would have our breakfast. After more than a decade, I finally tried the notorious kupat bongkok again. With a palate that has been exposed to a lot more different dishes, I can now appreciate this delicacy even better. The one we tried tasted just as good as my first time many years ago. I looked at James to see whether he liked it or not, and I was surprised to know that he actually didn’t mind the funky taste.

With reasonably full stomachs, we walked around the area which now felt more open and airy with an unobstructed view of the former headquarters of the SCS. Nearby is a water tower built in 1932 to provide the city and its surrounding areas with clean water. Meanwhile, at the eastern end of the plaza stands the small but elegant train station which was quieter than how I remembered it, thanks to the ongoing pandemic.

The old water tower as seen from outside Gedung Birao

Built in 1932, this water tower used to serve Tegal and its surrounding areas

A remnant of the Dutch colonial period in Indonesia

The former office of the Nederlandsch Indische Handelsbank in Tegal, now occupied by the Navy

The city’s old post office

Sate kambing Tegal (a local version of goat satay) for lunch

If there was one thing my mother anticipated the most from this excursion, that would be sate kambing Tegal, a local version of satay (skewered meat) made from goat kids. She often tells people how much she loves goat satay, so much so that when she was pregnant with me she had it very frequently. And thanks to my father’s stint in Tegal, now she claims that no one does goat satay better than the Tegalese. Unsurprisingly, when I asked her if she wanted to have this dish for early lunch, she enthusiastically agreed despite the fact that our breakfast was only less than three hours earlier.

After a brief visit to the city’s Chinatown – which to my surprise has more well-preserved Chinese-style houses than those in Semarang – and taking photos of the nearby Dutch colonial buildings, off we went to our lunch place. My mother is usually a light eater as she easily gets full. But it was as if she was a different person during lunch for she was able to devour one skewer of tender goat meat after another. I must admit, this was the best sate kambing that has ever passed my lips. As opposed to many Indonesian dishes, this satay is not seasoned when it’s grilled, and it’s served only with kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce), chopped chilies, and some sliced tomatoes and shallots as a side dish.

Once we finished our satisfying lunch, we went to the house of a former colleague of my father’s to kill time. Still within the city, it’s a rather modest abode filled with a few decorative elements that are peculiar even by Indonesian standards. However, our host proved to be very hospitable. While my mother spent hours talking to her, reminiscing over the good old days when my father was still working in the city, James and I were happily munching on some snacks provided for us: tahu aci (tofu stuffed with seasoned tapioca flour, then fried), sliced star fruits, and the most delicious tea ever. Tegal is famous for its tea, but our host claimed that it’s the water that makes the tea in Tegal taste better than those from other places in Indonesia. “I always bring water from Tegal to make tea whenever I travel,” she added with a sense of pride on her face.

At a little past 3pm, we finally said goodbye to our kind host and got ready to return to Semarang. But not without stopping by one more place to try another dish I have been curious about: kupat blengong. Made from blengong (the naturally-occurring hybrid between Indian runner ducks and Muscovy ducks), this is one of the dishes that is unique to this part of Java as this type of meat is almost unknown or unheard of in other parts of the island. While the experience was interesting, James and I agreed that we should have had this before the sate kambing. The skewered goat was so insanely good our last dish in Tegal felt like a little bit of a letdown. Nevertheless, I’m glad we tried it before leaving the city.

Now, if anyone asks me of all places I could have gone for holiday, why Tegal? My answer would be as simple as, why not? It’s much more than just a small city where the people speak a very funny dialect of Javanese.

Entering Tegal’s Chinatown

The city’s Confucian temple

Old Chinese houses on Jalan Teri, a small street known for its food stalls

Old houses in different architectural styles on Jalan Teri

Tek Hay Kiong temple (its current structure dates back to 1837)

The city’s main Taoist temple

No Chinese temple is complete without mythical creatures on the roofs

Sate blengong in the afternoon

Our super early dinner before returning to Semarang

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

51 thoughts on “Why Tegal?”

  1. I really like the mixture of tourist visuals and food in each of your posts. I’ve begun to dream of a long holiday in Indonesia. But this post also revived memories of long-forgotten words: Bandung, Panchasheela … The words are no longer in use, but the world they imagined is slowly coming into being. As always the dream and the reality are different, but also the same in important ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For your first trip to Indonesia, you need to at least spend a couple of weeks to get a rough idea of what the country has to offer, I.J. A month would be better as it allows you to see some of the main islands. Another blogging friend of mine who now lives in Chennai also commented about how she read about Bandung many years ago. She also mentioned about Panchsheel of the Sino-Indian agreement in the 1950s. That and Pancasila do have the same etymology.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. First of all I love that you went with your mom because she wanted to go. I obviously have no prejudice toward Tegal as I’ve never heard of it but I can appreciate your hesitancy, but you went with her anyway. I also found it interesting at your description of their way of speaking. I only speak English and in Canada we don’t really have different t dialects. Other than learning French in school where I was not a kean learner, I have had never really thought of how sounds are made. But Richard grew up in Poland and often explains how another dialect swallow their words or speaks with their jaws clenched etc. I had never really thought about it or noticed it before but am learning to appreciate it. I have always loved accents but never thought why or how they’re made. I love tempeh and now wonder if I want to try fermented tempeh! Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    • One thing I find amusing about English is how you have that one syllable to stress in every word when you pronounce it. We don’t have anything like that in Indonesia because whether someone says CA-na-da, or ca-NA-da, or ca-na-DA, it’s all the same for us. For me, one of the most fascinating ways to produce sound to communicate verbally is the clicks people made in languages like Xhosa. I only found out about this after watching Black Panther, and I think it’s really cool. Now I’m reminded about some of the regional languages in China where sometimes to say a word you don’t even need to open your mouth. It’s interesting to learn about Richard’s observation of the way people produce sounds in different parts of Poland.

      Oh I think making over-fermented tempeh is a rather stinky affair! 🙂

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      • There’s a joke that a person couldn’t understand someone because the other put ‘the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble’. It is funny how in English it completely changes the word, and I still don’t understand Richard sometimes when he gets the emphasis wrong. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ha! 😄 That reminds me of the questions James asked me about which syllable to emphasize to correctly pronounce [name of an Indonesian city]. That was the moment I realized how important it is in English to put the right emphasis. 😁

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    • It’s indeed nice to see how what was once the headquarters of the SCS has, to some extent, been restored to its former glory. If only I could include more shots of the local delicacies, but we only had so much time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s always interesting how in one country, there can be such diverse cultures, cuisines and dialects.

    It sounds like your mom and dad built many wonderful memories in Tegal and that you got to build your own memories with them as well.

    Your recent trip back with your mom sounded awesome. What a wonderful thing you did for her. The cuisine looked amazing – goat kid satay sounds yummy right about now, and it’s only breakfast over here! 😊😆

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you had a rather big breakfast when you were reading this. 😄

      The pandemic really ‘forced’ me to revisit some places closer to home, and that’s a good thing. If only smartphones had already existed back then when my parents were still living in Tegal, I would have taken some shots of Gedung Birao.

      It really is fascinating to see how dialects, even languages, can differ between two places that are separated only by a river, or a hill, or a mountain.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was having fried rice and bbq pork leftovers when I read your post so thankfully it buffered some of the hunger cravings. 🙂

        Discovering neighboring cities and provinces has indeed been a blessing of this pandemic!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s possible that the SCS headquarters was built in Tegal because a Dutch official was bribed. Tegal is impressive, and I’d definitely like to try that breakfast. It reminds me of something I ate in India that was to die for. Thanks for another great post and another photo of a unique Indonesian mosque.
    I hope you don’t mind if I make a suggestion regarding the m-dash. Use the option and shift key at the same time and then the m-dash is longer. In North America there is no space either side of each word—it could be different elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bribery is something I hadn’t thought about as the reason for the SCS’ decision to build their headquarters in Tegal. I hope someone do a thorough research on this.

      Do you remember that dish you had in India? So it also had a funky taste?

      Thanks for your suggestion, Mallee. I think I know why I’m more used to using the n-dash (with spaces before and after it) for the function the m-dash does in North American English. It’s because Monocle, a London-based magazine I really like, prefer to use the former. I looked up the internet just now and apparently this is a common practice in British English, although Oxford does recommend using the m-dash instead. But in the end, everyone says whichever one chooses, the key is consistency.

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      • I had a feeling the m-dash might have been a North American thing because I’d never heard of it when I lived in Australia.
        I wouldn’t say the dish had a funky taste, it just looked a bit like the one you ate in Tegal—bhel puri and some varieties of chevda.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh yes, I love pani puri. I had it for the first time in Chennai and it was like a party in my mouth!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. This day trip to Tegal was one of the highlights of our pre-Christmas break last December. I remember hearing about your shock upon descending from cool Bandung to the hot and humid coast – it must have been a struggle to sleep properly when your parents’ house didn’t have air conditioning and the fan in your bedroom couldn’t cool things down. Since my ears aren’t so attuned to standard Javanese, I often couldn’t distinguish it from the Tegal accent until you told me. The sate kambing we ate for lunch was incredibly addictive and easily the best I’d ever had. And I so loved the sweet jasmine tea we had at the house of your ex-neighbors. Fingers crossed the Indonesian railway company will open Gedung Birao as a museum to the public and turn the grounds into a lovely park.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember laying down on my bed in Tegal, with the fan turned up to the max. But it didn’t really help since the air was just too hot. Every time I went to Tegal for holiday, as soon as I stepped out of the train, I immediately missed Bandung’s cool air and started counting the days until my return to the latter.

      PT KAI really should consider doing what they’ve done at Lawang Sewu to Gedung Birao. I know Tegal is not a main tourist destination like Semarang, but opening the so-called ‘Lawang Satus’ to the public will certainly help promote this place. Who knows in the near future more and more people will visit this city exactly because they want to see Gedung Birao.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This sounds like a wonderful trip down memory lane for you, and especially for your mother. And of course you had to ry all the food 😂. You wouldn’t get *me* eating that stinky stuff either!😂
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

  7. How lovely to take a day-trip to Tegal with your mother and to relive some of the memories from your past. Sounds like you had a delicious day of feasting and trying the local cuisine. I was so curious about the Tegal accent that I even watched a couple of videos on Youtube. I had no idea what they were saying, but there was laughter in the background so I imagine it was all very comical.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The city was still very hot, but it was the memories that truly warmed my heart. Ha! 😄 I can’t believe you looked for Tegal accent on YouTube. I’m sure there are a lot of videos about it out there because their particular way of speaking is just so funny. I think even the locals also admit it.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. What a wonderful post combining so many lovely memories of the past, while at the same time creating new ones, Bama. I always find food memories interesting. When I was growing up I loved my mom’s potato salad, but when I made it for the first time after I haven’t had it for about 20 years, I found that my palate has changed so much that it no longer tasted good.
    Dialects and accents are such wonderful tools for comedians. I can clearly picture you walking around as a student averting your eyes and fighting against the urge to laugh. That image brought a smile to my face.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My mom once said that after finishing all the complicated process involved in preparing a dish, by the time it is ready she often loses appetite for her own cooking. I wonder if that was partially responsible for your experience when you recreated your mom’s potato salad, although a change of palate is a logical explanation too. Speaking of the Tegalese dialect, I must admit after being attuned to it, now I can imitate it a little bit. I just need to find someone from Tegal to switch it on. 🙂

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      • I completely agree with your mom’s observation, Bama. Interestingly enough the food I like now and the way I cook are not at all related to the food I grew up with. There really are only a handful of recipes I use that still hark back to my childhood – all of them deserts, and I am not even a big fan of desssert. So strange.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s interesting, but I can somehow relate to that. The dishes I like to cook today are not necessarily the ones my mom used to make when I was little.

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  9. The Mystery of Tegal! I love the ways you used the question “why Tegal?” to investigate various aspects of the city’s personality and past. As a tea lover, I have to agree with your host: it’s the water that makes the tea. Someday I shall make it to Tegal to test out their flavor.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I believe even most Indonesians don’t know much about Tegal, which was among the reasons why I wrote this post and why I picked that title. It’s interesting to hear stories about how certain dishes and drinks will not taste the same when they’re made in different places, like how the people in Samarkand believe that the air in their city is essential to make a perfect Samarkand bread. I wonder if someone is curious enough to examine the differences in chemical compounds of the air and water from these places that can result in this.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ah, what a career that would be! Especially for a food lover. I’ve always figured that if terroir determines wine taste and quality, it must also do so for other food and beverages.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. What a great article! I had never heard of Tegal but I will for sure remember it now – and the particularities of its dialect, being a language lover! It is so nice that you went with your mum and I’m sure she appreciated to go back in time like this! I can totally understand your behaviour when hearing someone speak a different dialect/accent! I had the same when I went to Montreal, where they speak a very different French than in France 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • I heard that people from France can only understand less than 50% of the French the Quebecois use. Was that also the case with you? Language is indeed an endlessly fascinating subject to talk about, and it’s in our best interest to keep languages of the world as diverse as they are today.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mmh I think it depends for the Quebecois! For sure knowing a bit of English always helps because they borrow a lot of words and expressions from English. For sure if the person speaking is from a remote part of Canada (and not a big city) I think 50% seems about right! It is indeed fascinating 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Tegal is a very interesting city and holds good memories for tour family. It is hard for me to grasp how people in Indonesia can understand so many different languages and dialects. It is a good skill to have. Indonesia has solid democratic ideals. The United States could use a lesson in democracy right now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Actually Indonesia is the most trilingual country in the world, and most people in the country can at least speak two languages (one of their own and Indonesian, the national language). Our forefathers understanding that there are hundreds of languages spoken throughout the entire archipelago saw the need for a unifying language that is not: a) the language of the dominant ethnic group and b) the language of any of the former colonial powers. Taking Malay as its base (as it has been the lingua franca of trade in the Maritime Southeast Asia for hundreds of years), Indonesian is a constructed language with vocabulary that can be traced to its Austronesian roots, and has loanwords both from foreign (Sanskrit, Portuguese, Dutch, French, English, Chinese, Arabic, and Persian) and regional languages (Javanese, Sundanese, etc).

      Speaking of democracy, unfortunately there have been setbacks here in Indonesia as well. The good thing is democratic institutions still seem to work despite all the challenges, and the country is still ranked as a democracy, albeit a flawed one, in the latest Democracy Index. The past few years had been a tough time for democracy in the US, which also undermined its status as the leader of the free world. But I hope things will only get better from here onwards.

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  12. That water tower is interesting and thank for the wonderful descriptions and pictures of the food. All of them are new to me. You certainly have a keen sense of curiousity and are very observant too. I hope you, James and your mom continue to stay healthy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Matt! Thanks. I guess you’re right about me being curious about things, which explains why I have a broad range of interests. I hope everything is going well with you.

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    • Liz, if you like barbecued meat I think you would enjoy sate kambing Tegal. It’s quite different from many other Indonesian dishes that often rely heavily on a lot of spices. Its simplicity is in fact its appeal.

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  13. It’s so wonderful to revisit a place that has so many memories associated. Never heard of Tegal before and obviously so, there are so many places in the nooks and corners of the world. Your description of Tegal is endearing though, especially the language and how it’s spoken. Could totally relate. So true for many places in India. That you took your mom along makes it super special, given that the place means so much to her. Enjoyed your experience of the local food. As I started reading this post and the uniqueness of Tegal, once again I thought I really want to go to Indonesia. I hope someday I can make it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The pandemic has made me think of revisiting places where I grew up or where my parents once lived. So far it’s been nice to see some changes, as well as how a few things remain the same after all these years. With all those languages spoken in your country, I’m pretty sure there must be a Tegal version of India where the locals speak a dialect that sounds rather funny to outsiders. I really hope you’ll be able to visit Indonesia one day. But just like India, one time is far from enough. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Mas Bama, I’ve never known that Tegal has such impressive distinct Dutch colonial buildings. Same to you, I’d had been wondering, “Really? This great building? In Tegal?” Kota yang hanya kulalui begitu saja dalam perjalanan mudik Bandung-Jogja dan sebaliknya.

    Compared to the chill Bandung, Tegal is like hell lol. But the cuisine are tempting, I’m curious to that Sate Blengong.
    anw, thank you for bringing another new city for your international readers. I read all main comments and I’m glad that you carve such good impressions about Tegal, as you usually do.

    Alright, let’s find some good hotels in Tegal for a day-off or two. Tell my regards to your mom and James.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Halo Nug. Gedung Birao is quite impressive, isn’t it? It really is curious why for a city its size Tegal has such a large Dutch-era edifice. I don’t recall any bigger cities in Java (like Cirebon or Malang) having a colonial building this grand.

      Silakan berburu hotel di Tegal. But bear in mind, it’s really hot and humid! But at least the food is interesting.

      By the way, mudik Bandung-Jogja lewat Tegal itu berarti naik kereta ya?

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  15. This sounded like a wonderful trip visiting Tegal where you spent some time on holiday many years ago. It is great to hear some things were just as you remembered, like the oppressive heat, the Dutch-era structures and sate kambing Tegal. It really sounded delicious as your mother had quite a few. I’ve never heard of Tegal before and funny to hear how the local accent sounds comical. Never heard of the kupat bongkok but great you have an appreciation for such unique local food. I like your answer at the end there – why not visit a place. You never know what you’ll discover about a place until you visit it. Hope you’ve got some more travels lined up, Bama. Always fun to see you and James traveling together and sharing with us 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really was a nice day trip. The funny thing is, my mom knew about that sate kambing restaurant from a relative. However, we ended up going to the wrong place with a similar name. But their sate kambing turned out to be the best we’ve ever had. Thanks Mabel. I hope you get to explore more places yourself.

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  16. I now want to try Sate kambing Tegal. 😦

    There are these small, oft forgotten towns which have so many interesting things to them. Your post makes me want to visit Chandernagore, a tiny town near Kolkata, once a french Colonial outpost, which I used to visit infrequently in my childhood, to a cousin’s house. I haven’t visited this town in in maybe 30 years now, and although then, as a child, it didn’t seem that alluring, now I really want to visit…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your blog posts are actually part of the reason why now I try to pay more attention to smaller cities and towns I often overlooked in the past. You’ve written many stories from lesser-known places in India that are no less appealing than those more popular among tourists. I hope you’ll get to visit Chandernagore soon! I just googled about it and it looks so interesting.

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