Of all the ways I could choose to fill my spare time, I’ve managed to pick some incredibly tedious, punishing yard projects. It must be from my inherited Polish virtues, a strong back and a weak mind. I intend to fill my back yard with about a meter of soil, all of which must be carted in by hand, since the house is built too close to the lot lines on the sides for even a small truck to pass. It’s an eighth of an acre back there, multiplied by a meter, which equals an ungodly amount of wheelbarrowing. In part to reduce the final amount of fill needed, the back yard will have two terraces, an upper terrace at the elevation of the house that will run in an undulating curve across the back yard from fence to fence, and a second lower terrace that will be about a meter below that. In order to contain the upper terrace, I have to build two retaining walls. The one running from one side of the yard to the other will be a dry laid stone wall. The other runs along my southerly fence. Ideally, that would be a proper column and beam, with pilings under the columns and a poured concrete wall up to the level of the concrete apron. From there it would have a about a meter of brick topped with an iron fence. The funds for a wall of that kind are about five years off if I’m really lucky. So in the meantime, since the volume of soil I’m retaining on the side there on the side of the house is not huge, I figure five or six courses of brick on a sand footing out to hold for a few years. Strictly temporary. Of course, nothing is so permanent as that which is temporary, my old boss Joe used to say. But I’m ignoring that for now.

Wobbly wall
Wobbly wall

So I’ve started on my brick wall, and I’ll be darned if the thing isn’t profoundly warped already. By that I mean, warped in all three dimensions, up-down-left-right and back to front. There is not a level brick in the whole 50′ length. Maybe a Free Mason out there would be willing to teach a Slav Digger like me some of their guild’s hidden knowledge. I don’t need the heavy gnostic stuff (they got that from the Muslims anyway), just the secret of how to make a wall that doesn’t suck.

In between bouts with the wall, I’ve been digging out chunks of concrete construction debris that are shallowly buried throughout the yard. As always, the landscape was made to cover the colossal mess left by all the other trades. The area under the future upper terrace is not important since it will be buried deep but the lower terrace will just be 3-4″ above it’s current elevation. At least the debris can be recycled into the dry stone wall.

Cangkul changkul malay hoe
Cangkul changkul malay hoe

But all the digging and prying has taken a toll on my only shovel, a short handled spade. If that breaks, I don’t know what I’ll do. Good shovels are hard to find. Shovels here are usually flimsy things not made for real work, called sekop in Bahasa Malaysia. I was lucky to find mine for six ringgit in Satok. The towkay must have been dying to get rid of it, since it was the only one in the store. So what do the poor things do without a decent shovel, you might ask yourself. Well, the principal soil working instrument around here is the cangkul, pronounced changkul, a tool resembling a brutal, outsize hoe. The cangkul is used by swinging it out in front of the body with arms extended to about shoulder height and then bringing it down to the target.

I can’t stand them.

They’re too big and heavy for actual hoeing, difficult to aim, awkward to remove the loosened soil, and to pry with them you have to push away from your body after striking. Why is it that the cangkul is the preferred tool here instead of the shovel, when the shovel is clearly, clearly a more elegant, refined and suitable tool? I believe the answer lies in the foot, or more specifically, what is on the foot. The vast majority of people who dig for a living in the cangkul belt do so in chappels, flip-flops, slippers. I’m still surprised when I see workers clambering around a construction site wearing such things. (At best they wear Adidas payak, swamp adidas, a solid molded rubber shoe, the main manufacturer of which, here in Sarawak, has a swiped Adidas logo on it.) With footwear like that, you can’t stomp down on a shovel! The shovel requires the boot – the cangkul can be operated barefoot. If you have other opinions about the origin of the cangkul, or just want to defend it against my ethnocentric shovel-loving, you may leave a comment below.

Adidas payak swamp adidas molded rubber shoes
“Adidas payak” or swamp adidas: molded rubber shoes

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The backyard saga continues in Don’t Be Fooled by the Rocks that I Got

Published by bingregory

Official organ of an American Muslim in Malaysian Borneo, featuring plants, pantuns and pictures from the Malay archipelago. Oversharing since 2002.

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  1. dear brother. use a string as a guide for your wall. ifu have curves use some stakes. if u movethe string up with each corse unshould be ok. do u have accses to any one with a heavy steel bar? 5 foot long with a pry end. good for braking up dirt and prying.can u put anew handle on your spad? and save it for moveing good broken up dirt?
    all our love in muskegon

  2. Wow, real advice! Yeah, I’ve got the string going. What I really need is a buddy who likes working on stuff like this. When are you comin’ over? But while we’re on the subject, can I complain about the bricks for a moment? These things – they bend, they curve, they are of varying dimensions. They are Hand-Made Bricks! Made in small batches in rows of small kilns fired I think by wood, but maybe it is coal. When they delivered my load, I was like: Dude, what is this?! Then I traveled out of the city last month and I saw some of the kilns. Now that’s no excuse for building a cruddy wall (It’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools, Dad would say) but I’m just sayin’…

    Meanwhile, what else is funny, since my sand pile has been sitting there for a month and a half while I putz around, every kuching in Kuching has been using it as his own litterbox. I can’t stick my shovel in without releasing this aroma…

  3. Sarawak is not the only place where the hoe is the preferred lasndscraping tool. Its everywhere where its warm and people don’t wear shoes. And it is indispenable even here at 43.5 degrees north latitude. I picked up a monster called an “Italian Grading Hoe” which was recommended in a catalog for “removal of existing vegetation” and it most certainly does if you swing it with great force. It arrived in the mail while my apprentice was visiting, Nancy Parachini, who had just completed her masters at UM-SNRE with a stint as a teaching assistant. She told me she was surprised to know such a thing existed because she thought whe was the only Italian Grading Hoe around.

  4. ACK! hehe maby some net or a tarp for the kittys? ya i hate funy size bricks. it takes longer but if u sort em and fit em u can do ok hight isthe real problem lenght u can have 10 or so and just pick a good one and will be able to use em all up. backfilling maby can help yer hight. use dirt or gravel for a hight shim. good luck. be carfull i might just fly over ther toohehe. but maby i willbe in the same difficulty u are we are aboutto buy a house too. head ach starts. no its ok butwow i got a big hunnydo list. at leasti wont have to do much grading. mostly duch grading hoes out here thay dontwork so well just complain. hehe love u chanol

  5. Gregory:

    I grew up in Malaysia and my mother is living in Kuching right now with my brother and daughter. However, I live near Rosebush, Michigan, and I am totally lost without the changol. I find the shovel difficult to use because I do not have the strength to push it down into the soil while the weight of the changol cuts into the soil. Many times I wanted to bring a changol back to the U.S. but am worried about how the airline security would view my traveling with it. I have enjoyed reading your blog.

  6. You guys are frightening me now. I have this fantasy where I’ll be able to make my yard beautiful. I was thinking that would mean just buying some huge potted plants in Sungai Buloh.
    Now I’m afraid!

  7. I’ve had a cankul for many years. It doesn’t get used often, but every now and then it’s the only weapon for the the job. However, a miniature version with an opposing forked or slotted edge is a great universal gardening implement, that doesn’t require the operator to wear boots.
    Regarding the quality of Malaysian bricks, or rather concrete blocks. I bought sufficient to build an outdoor BBQ in Petaling Jaya. They got left out in the rain for a couple of months which almost completely dissolved them.

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