Tibet-Dispatch 2

The farther west we go in Tibet, the more arid and high the country becomes. We are now routinely at over 4500 meters. The air is thin and dry; I breathe it in great gulps, and still don’t quite feel that I’ve gotten a satisfying deep breath. The sky is a blue so bright I squint behind the polarized lenses of my RayBans.

In the folds of rolling ochre hills, shepherds pasture their yak herds, moving slowly lower as the snows of winter encroach. The grass is as sparse as day-old stubble, yet the yaks look robust, more so than the children of the shepherds, who are thin and ragged, a six-year-old looking like a four-year-old. Small sheep and goats also populate these hills, which in a state like Colorado would overtop even the highest fourteener. Here, the snow covered peaks only begin around twenty thousand feet.
The yaks, mostly black though there’s an occasional beige or cream-colored one, sport long wooly skirts. They don’t hesitate to issue a grumbling cough and flick their long bushy tails at us when we come too close.

We’ve gone from the golden stubble of barley fields being harvested on the plains below Everest, to the mighty west face of Everest itself, rising clear and grand from Rongbuk glacier into the rays of a brilliant white full moon.





A rugged drive over roads carpeted with jagged rocks took us through the above-mentioned alpage, then along a ribbon of highway empty of cars except us and the occasional other tourist Land Cruisers, all of them filled with Chinese tourists.

This year the Chinese government issued only 10% of Tibet visas to westerners, so we feel especially lucky to be here. In fact, the stated goal of the government is to dilute the native Tibetan population to 50% of inhabitants of the Tibet Autonomous Region, by 2018. Chinese are encouraged to travel here in hopes they will return permanently, open businesses (it’s tax-free for them), and partake in achieving that goal.

The central Tibetan towns are dusty and bedraggled, crumbling sidewalks lined with 10×12 stalls that serve as restaurants or mini-marts selling toothpaste, cookies and sweet drinks. One town, Saga, was in the midst of city-wide infrastructure ‘improvement.’ The rich steam from packets of Nescafe dumped into hot water could not displace the odor of raw sewage from the open trench that ran in front. Happiness comes when one of us spies a box of Snickers for sale, which in my experience is the best treat one can have on these trips, where everything is so foreign in smell, taste and sound.

Our breakfasts are sparse, featuring a hardboiled egg if we’re lucky, and perhaps a chapati-like flatbread favored by Tibetans. I haven’t yet screwed up my courage to sample the typical Tibetan breakfast, which is made of tsampa (barley flour) mixed with yak butter. But I will, I swear…..

One glorious afternoon we hiked up to a viewpoint below Mt. Kailash, the sacred mountain of Buddhists which is also the source of the headwaters of the Indus, the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra rivers. Prayer flags flapped in the strong wind and a faraway monastery pulled a disappearing act behind the foothills as we walked upward to a flag-draped promontory at 5,075 meters.

Below, pilgrims and devotees followed the broad path around Kailash’s circumference, some prostrating themselves at designated prayer stations, observed by thick-coated black village dogs, descendants perhaps of the huge Tibetan mastiff.





We have just reached the western-most point in our journey, the town of Toling/Zanda (most towns have both a Chinese and a Tibetan name). It is lovely here, as we are back down below tree level, with poplars turning yellow and the Sutlej river running pearl blue toward India. A twisting road through wrinkled cliffs of beige sandstone took us up to snow level before depositing us in this fertile valley.

The town itself is cleaner and quieter than any other we’ve been through, making it actually pleasant to stroll down the street. It is in that way that I discovered the local foot massage parlor, up a red-carpeted flight of stairs, in a bright clean room with windows shielded by yellow flowered curtains. There I spent a blissful hour and a half with my feet soaking in an oak tub filled with hot water and an herbaceous concoction of Chinese herbs, my back and limbs being pounded, pulled and jabbed like the lump of dough I feel I’ve become, followed eventually by an excruciating excavation of every knot and hard spot on the soles of my feet. Heaven!

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Tibet-Dispatch 1

It was with a mix of dread and anticipation that I stepped off our All Nippon Airways flight into the heat of Beijing three days ago. Last time I was here we were five days away from starting the Peking to Paris rally. This time is different, Beijing is but prelude to the fugue of a very special journey. We are off to the wilds of Tibet heading by car into the most remote western and north central regions of the Tibetan Plateau, seeking to get as close as we can to the heart of this special country before it is stilled forever by encroaching China-ization.

On our 45-day Istanbul Calcutta drive in 2011 we spent five days motoring through Tibet. As we went through border formalities departing China and entering Nepal, I mostly was relieved to be done with the searing altitude headache that had wrapped itself around my forehead days earlier and been squeezing my brain like an overly-tightened cinch ever since. I was never quite sure whether that headache, and the persistent tingling that had invaded my fingertips, gums and the soles of my feet, were the result of altitude, or the drugs I was taking to help me adjust to the altitude. Mostly I was joyous to be leaving the strict constraints of driving in China, where overhead cameras enforce a 25mph speed limit over stretches of pavement as smooth as a baby’s bottom and as empty as a new diaper! Never had the potholed, cacophonous chaos of Nepalese and Indian roads been so freeing.

To my surprise given how short a time we were in the region, Tibet has stayed in my consciousness, and so it was with genuine pleasure that I informed our friend Paul that we would accept an invitation to join the trip to Tibet he was organizing if he would only issue one. Paul, in a fit of politeness, or perhaps having forgotten just how grumpy a traveller I can be at times, did just that.

And so we arrived in Beijing after the usual cripplingly long flight that left me shaped like an airplane seat and despairing of ever completing any Pilates exercises again. After the initial sweating in panicky deja vu which I mention above, I have felt fully at peace. For one, I am a seasoned road warrior now. Though I haven’t totaled the number of miles we’ve driven since 2007, it must be pushing 50-60,000. There isn’t a whole lot about long days of driving that I haven’t experienced. Or, to put this another way, I’m more competent at self-soothing, more skilled at avoiding mind-dramas about awful things that may happen. At least not until it seems possible they will. Happen.

There’s another, even better reason for my present state of happiness. I’ve had nothing to do with the organization of this journey. That honor goes to Paul, whom we met on the long drive from Istanbul to Calcutta two years ago. Paul is a master at creating interesting road adventures. You can read more about our anticipated route here. Other than packing my own suitcases, in case they asked me about that at the airport, I’ve been delighted to leave everything in his capable hands.

We are sharing this journey with a handful of other adventurers. There’s Martin, who walks so fast he probably could have beat the plane from Beijing to Lhasa. While I am staggering up a short, gentle incline to a slope-side monastery in the rarefied air of Mt. Kailash he plans to run a 50km route. No doubt he’ll beat us there. Martin’s wife Sabrina, and their daughter Magdalene are on for the drive, too. Also along is David, who is so imbued with all things oceanic that I can only admire his fortitude bearing up for weeks in a land-locked country. We are all already quite compatible travelers.

Bernard and I found Lhasa even less Tibetan than two years back. There’s a big ferris wheel and amusement park near the entrance of the city. Garish lights have been installed in the plaza across from Potala Palace where, in the evening, music blared from loudspeakers and Chinese visitors line danced to the tunes, executing restrained hops, shuffles and arm swings to the beat. I joined in one dance, adding my own out of sync gyrations to the mix. It was fun. But somehow it felt unseemly.

We easily retraced our steps from two years ago to find Jokhang Temple and wander the market streets, dodging pilgrims twirling prayer wheels or prostrating themselves on the cobbles with a chant and a clack of handheld blocks. Eager to start my forays in adventurous eating, we stopped at a stall where a small circle of men stood around one seated with a broad flat grass basket on his lap. Piled on it with slender 2-inch long, rippled beige sticks, which he shook up, down and around. Peering closer I realized they were dried caterpillars. I’ve never had dried caterpillar. Have you?

I took a proffered caterpillar, inspected its belly, then gingerly bit its head off. I imagined it would be crunchy on the outside and pleasingly squishy on the inside, like a soft caramel in a crackly chocolate skin. As for taste, that’s what I was here in to find out! The men stared at me, their looks changing from amused to horrified as I thoughtfully chewed the little head. I tried to smile, but didn’t want to insult them by appearing flippant, so changed my expression to contemplative, hoping to show my connoisseurship in all things larva.

I have to say there’s nothing distinguished about dried caterpillar. It tastes just like it looks: pale, wan and dry. The more I chewed the more agitated the vendors became, finally grabbing a calculator and jabbing in some numbers. The number 100 appeared on the screen, then was rapidly changed to 400. They wanted to charge us over $70 for one never-to-be-butterfly. Bernard offered them 10 yuan. This nearly provoked a riot and expressions became threateningly severe. The men moved closer, frowns gathered like rain clouds during the monsoon and were just as black. We finally compromised on $25, I stuck the headless desiccated stub in my pocket and we walked off. Only later did I learn that it wasn’t even a real caterpillar, it was a fungus, prized (naturally) for its medicinal purposes. A hundred grams of the stuff sells for $900.

After these two welcome days of acclimatization at 11,450 feet, we start our drive tomorrow. Our first course of business is a return to Rongbuk and Everest base camp. Fingers crossed we’ll be blessed with sparkling clear skies as we were two years ago. I’ll be writing dispatches along the way, but doubt I’ll be able to send anything for the first five days or so. Be prepared for a deluge of photos and news once I get to a place where internet is viable.

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The Calcutta Times-Part 2

The Food Issue…

Snack time:Calcutta has a great subway, complete with air conditioning (sometimes) and a Ladies section in each car (always). During monsoon season, you may be hot and sweaty on the subway, but in the Ladies section you are safe as you swelter. Men don’t ever try to stand there and any who cross do so with rounded shoulders and apologetic eyes.
Calcutta Subway
It’s a ten-minute walk along quiet streets to my metro stop. At one corner is the snack man, who toasts grains and nuts on demand. I’ve sampled a variety of snacks, including his most popular-based on puffed rice–along with my usual: hot, roasted peanuts in a newsprint sack, complete with a little twist of paper holding spiced salt to sprinkle on top. One day I branched out and asked for popcorn. Snack man dumped corn kernels into a small wok filled with what looked like ash. Well, I thought, street cooking is what it is. I didn’t expect him to haul out an Orville Redenbocker popper from under his cart. Still, ashy popcorn wasn’t my dream. How would I eat the stuff?
Calcutta Snack Man
He tossed, stirred and shook, and pretty soon the kernels began popping, so he placed a sieve on top to prevent them spraying into the street. When the ash was studded with ivory popped corn, some still doing startling little jumps, snack man dumped ash, popcorn and all into the sieve, from where the ash drained off, leaving clean popcorn on top. I asked the man next to me why everything was cooked in ash. “Not ash!” he said. “Glash. Glash!” This took me a minute. Glash? Then I remembered that in Bengali, “s” is pronounced “sh.” Glass! He meant cooking sand. Doesn’t stick to food. Conveys heat. Reusable. Of course.

Street food: I’ve had several street meals, a biryani here, a glass of fresh OJ there., always from a stand that’s busy. My favorite is the egg roll. Forget about the tiny, deep-fried roll filled with dreary cabbage that comes with your lunch special at Woo Fong’s. A Calcutta egg roll has nothing to do with that. First, a chapatti is rolled from a fresh mound of dough, then slid down the side of a wok into a puddle of smoking oil. When dough meets oil there’s an explosion of steam and sizzle. Next a handful of thinly slice red onion is flung in, along with a deep-fried carrot patty I’ve selected from the stand’s smeared plastic cabinet. Salt, pepper and fresh cilantro are sprinkled on top. A bottle of thick brick red sauce is offered. I shake my head. A bowl of devilish green chilies is lifted. Another internationally understood No from me. A grimy shaker holding red powder appears. The cook, dressed in a blue sweat suit, eyes his partner who sits on the sidewalk grating vegetables into a soiled pink tub. They both lean back in laughter. I take this as a sign for me to decline once again.

Egg Roll Cook

Now for the grand finale: the onions+patty mix is pushed aside. Another large spoonful of oil is dolloped into the wok, and an egg cracked in which splutters and spits as it hits the oil. The chapatti is placed on top just long enough for the two to bind. Then it’s flipped, the veg mix is spooned onto the now-fried egg and the whole savory slab is lifted onto a board where it’s rolled like a jelly roll, wrapped in paper and handed to me. By the second bite I’m into creamy egg yolk, crunchy fried vegetables, steaming onions all savory with herbs and spices in a soft wrapping studded with toasty bits from the frying. It is so delicious I’m able to ignore that the wrapping paper is immediately soaked with surplus oil, which soon also coats my fingers.

Cooking school on the Bengali dining terrace. Protima, Sibhani, Payel and Puja joined me on the Soma Home roof for a cooking lesson. We made ratatouille. Puja (stirring, below) sniiffed the Herbes de Provence I’d bought at a fancy supermarket and declared, “It smells just like Pizza Masala!”

Cooking School

My use of four tablespoons oil for a large pot of vegetables caused Sibhani, who’s 12, much concern. She tapped my arm politely. “Dina-aunty,” she said, her eyebrows knitted in dismay. “More oil, I think.” She didn’t want me to be exposed as a cooking fraud.
“Well, let’s wait and see,” I told her, though I was unsure myself whether, given the strength of the industrial burner we were using, she might not be right.
“More now, I think,” she said after another minute, staying polite to her elder while hoping to convey the vegetables were about to singe into charred gunge.
“Let’s give it a little time, to see what it does,” I bargained.
Another few minutes and SIbhani was beside herself with anxiety “Aunty,” she jiggled my arm. “More oil NOW.”

To distract her, I handed her the large spoon to stir up the vegetables. Relief turned to amazement when she discovered enough liquid below to prevent the ratatouille from burning. Dina-aunty’s stature remained intact.

When I returned later that evening, everyone had sampled the French food. Most of it was still in the pot. “Very good!” declared Smrithi (below left). “Dina-aunty, so tasty,” said Rani. Protima, who is an orphan, just hugged me and smiled. Mere politeness, as I soon learned: “But not spicy!” they all shouted together and ran down the stairs laughing.

Smrithi at Bengali Dining Terrace
This cooking experiment was an exchange, actually. In return, I helped make chicken curry masala, the curry referring to the fact that there’s gravy, and masala meaning spices.

Girl in Calcutta
Here’s a great tip: To make the curry gravy, heat your oil and then add sugar–big crystals, not fine. As it caramelizes in the oil, add whatever onion and spices you’ll be using, along with loads of pureed garlic and ginger. The whole thing blends into a thick, fragrant yellow sauce, redolent of turmeric, cumin and caramel, ideal for coating and simmering your chunks of meat. With relief the girls used a good couple of cups of oil for their chicken dish. I’m sure you could get away with just four tablespoons!

Life in Calcutta hasn’t been only about food. We had a day at Maidan park where 11 young girls were introduced to horses and had their first horseback ride! You can imagine how that touched my heart, even though the horses were the size of burros.

Girls on horseback
Girls with horse in Calcutta

We’ve had photo sessions in my room and in the Soma Home yard. Neha (below) is seven. She was taken into Soma Hpme to get her away from her mother, who beat her continually. One afternoon even the cleaning masi (assistant), whom we call Baby-masi because of her size, got into the spirit, pulling off my RayBans and turning herself into quite the Bollywood siren!


In Calcutta
Last note: A few days ago I interviewed Guria. She’s a sex worker whose tall, beautiful daughter lives at Soma Home. Guria lives in a courtyard behind New Light, shared with her in-laws, who were playing cards outside when I walked by.

Calcutta Alley

To talk comfortably we sat cross-legged on her bed, while her TV blared a Bollywood tragedy, punctuating our conversation with the heroine’s frequent sobs. The short bed took up half the space, which was perhaps 8×10. Decorating the walls were posters of movie stars beside favored gods with faded marigold garlands draped over them.

Guria's Bedroom
Her daughter’s academic trophies studded the small glass wall cabinets. Looking at these last, I noticed an astonishing array of nail polish bottles. I pointed to them and we laughed hard as I began to count. Forty-two in all! “I have a client who owns a salon,” she confided. “Sometimes he brings me nail polish!”

When our interview was done, I couldn’t help myself. “Let’s put some on!” We perused the gay offerings, everything from pale iridescent green, to purple, metallic grey and all shades of purple and red. Guria chose the color. Here’s the result!
Painted toenails

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The Calcutta Times-Part 1

Come along with me…..
Sangita Dey was driven from her village home by profound poverty.    Actually, that’s not strictly accurate. Profound poverty didn’t drive her from her home.  It drove her to believe a man who came to her village, promising he would take care of her and her children if she followed him to Calcutta.  Being beaten and sexually molested by your husband’s family will leave you vulnerable to such talk.   With her two baby daughters, Sangita followed him.  And indeed he took them to Calcutta.  To a red light district.

Why not flee to her own family?  Because her mother, a sex worker, had already died of AIDS.  She never knew her father, only his name.

Sangita went into a line of women working the street.  She made nearly $6 that first night, more than she’d ever had in her life. Nearby she rented a room, where she lived with her two little girls.  Every evening when she brought clients there she would put the two girls outside and tell the older one “Hold on to your sister and don’t let anyone take her.”  Each time she emerged from her room she would find Juma crouched nearby, her arms wrapped tightly around the baby, hugging her to her chest.

Turning three to four tricks per night at three dollars each, and paying only a few cents for rent, Sangita and her girls were no longer hungry.   They went along like this for several years.  But Juma was growing up wild.  By age five she was unmanageable, and her sister Jasmin was following her lead.   Sangita feared for them.  And also, perhaps, felt burdened by them.  When a friend introduced her to the founder of New Light, an NGO pursuing gender equality in India and providing full shelter for sex workers’ children, Sangita asked them to take her two girls.

That was nearly seven years ago.   Things have turned out well for Sangita, who sat with me for an hour sharing her story.  And of course I know her girls.  I live in the same house as Juma, who’s now a bright, but naughty 11 year-old, going to school and staging dance competitions with her friends at Soma Home, the group home run by New Light.  And Jasmine likes to play Angry Birds on my iPad, when I’m at the New Light crèche and shelter where she lives full time, in a different neighborhood from her sister.  As for Sangita, she’s married and working as an office lackey.  She visits her daughters often.  But she has not taken them home.

For these few weeks that I’m in Calcutta, I’m in the midst of such stories.  I’m living with the 33 girls who are sheltered and supported at Soma Home, New Light’s house for girls ranging from 9-18.  Nearly all are daughters of sex workers; some have mothers who have already died, perhaps from AIDS, perhaps alcohol.  Some have mothers who saw men eying their daughter when she was only 7 and feared for her safety.  Some are daughters of women who have left the sex trade, thanks to micro-credit from New Light, and the desire not to shame a daughter who was now so well educated.  Some have mothers who do not want to care for daughters, but who dote on the sons they keep at home.

We eat together, make up word games with Bananagrams, share stories.  Sometimes I help with lessons.  On weekends, I’m allowed to take the young girls to a park to play.  With the older girls I go to a Bollywood movie, for an evening of quite wild entertainment fortified by chips and Pepsi.  Tomorrow some girls will teach me to cook a favored Bengali chicken recipe, and I will teach them how to make ratatouille.  Eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and onions are plentiful right now.  As one of them said when she asked me the name of the dish we would cook:  “Oh, if I tried to say that my teeth would fall out!”  Surrounded by exceptional grace, I feel too clumsy to broach the idea of learning a Kathak dance.  Then again, I do have good teachers sleeping right above me, so perhaps osmosis will work.

During the day I also go to the New Light crèche, which shelters the younger children of sex workers, 35 or so who live there permanently and another 100 who come for a snack, a rest, and a clean, quiet place to play with friends or get help with their studies.  It’s there that I interview the Moms, though I also go to their homes if they live nearby.

The children’s shelter is in Kalighat, which is an old neighborhood, full of narrow lanes and crumbling buildings, loud with hawkers, blaring music and honking horns.  To have credibility with the women it seeks to serve, the shelter is right in the midst of the red light area.

Several sex workers at a time stand or squat at the entrance to the narrow, fetid alleyway where the shelter is housed in the ruins of an abandoned temple.   To get there, I walk down the damp pavement, by women sitting on curbstones, past windowless rooms the width of one narrow bed, around mangy dogs nosing garbage, side stepping a man bucket-bathing against the wall.  A fat woman pushes one enormous breast back under her sari.  A few people cluster together, talking loudly.  I hurry my step, not sure if this is standard Bengali talk or a prelude to a fight.

As I walk I try not to breathe the cool reek that wafts from a dark courtyard, as it clashes with the warm stench flowing off the canal at the alley’s far end.  Through a communal 8×8 courtyard, up a narrow, tiled stairway and I’m on the roof terrace which houses the New Light crèche and offices.

For the children of Kalighat, it’s a haven of laughter and lessons, of regular meals, naptimes, friendship and hugs.  Without fail I am greeted by one child or another who either races to me and hugs my waist hard, or clambers into my lap begging for another chance to type on my iPad keyboard.

But before that, I always stop at the top of the stairs to greet a wizened, slip of a woman with a deformed hand.  She lives in the 6×8 room at the top of the stairs, with her ancient mother and her alcoholic husband.

Yesterday I saw her right eye was bloodied red.  When I arrive she wraps her arms around her mother and points her chin in disgust at her husband.  He’s asleep crossed-legged, leaning against the wall, one arm flung out toward a filthy plastic water bottle filled with an amber liquid.  We squat together for a few minutes and she stares deep into my eyes, her toothless mouth working in outrage and pain.  She brings her twisted hand to her cheek and winces.

By contrast, Soma Home is in a nice, lower middle class neighborhood.  It’s quiet here, residential.  There are towering mangos, palms, shrubs.  The streets are wide and deserted.   It’s hushed enough in the early morning that I can here pigeons cooing.   A heavy padlock secures Soma’s entrance gate, mainly to keep unwanted visitors out, though also to ensure the girls stay in.

If you knew nothing about the girls’ history, their intelligence, exuberance and talent would persuade you you’d stepped into a girl’s camp.  A somewhat crowded, noisy camp, with thread-bare sheets on the bed, girls sharing clothes and shoes, not having any personal belongings to speak of, and never receiving letters from family, but otherwise just the same.

There’s the teenage group that trains in boxing 3x/wk with Razia, national women’s coach, judge and boxing referee.  There are the middle girls, into crafts and making cards and bracelets for each other.  There are the younger girls, who stage their own version of Dancing with the Stars.

School is de rigueur, meals are nutritious, discipline is clear.   Everyone takes a turn helping the cook prepare.  TV is allowed only on weekend evenings.

The girls at Soma Home are a joy to be with.  The pure happiness in their eyes when a mother comes to visit (each Mom is allowed to come once a month) is a sight to behold.  The mothers are so proud of their daughters.  And the daughters clearly are devoted to their Moms.

Every one has a story that would break your heart, and by rights should have broken theirs.  But they’re strong!  They’re optimistic!

They have dreams!  They love movie stars!!  And nail polish!!  Today we went to a great shopping mall, to buy the ingredients for that ratatouille.  In the food court I spied a Subway serving chicken tikka and chicken achari subs, 6” and 12” versions, of course.   And KFC offered a bucket of chicken curry drumsticks that I bet would be an instant hit in the U.S. Have I conveyed at all that this is a special place?

Note: The story of Sangita is a composite.  Though I made up a name for her, the story itself is neither better nor worse than any history I’ve been told.

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The Nimes Report- Part 4: Christmas finery

The city of Nimes puts on a light show at its main monuments that is a stunning display of video artistry. For a full week spanning Christmas, the light shows run continuously for three hours, starting right after dusk. The one on the clock tower was around the corner from our apartment. Every night the crowds got larger, as people stood, jaws dropped open, as it appear a young man in jeans and a red sweater was sauntering around the tower’s edge, 60 feet above the ground.

Because the images were full of movement, I had a hard time catching them, but did manage to get enough good ones to give you an idea of what Nimes put together. Considering that Nimes is just a small town, we were impressed to the tips of our cold noses that they invested (or squandered?) so much public money on these projects. We made sure to enjoy every bit of them.

First, here’s the clock tower as it looks when unadorned:








Now here’s the clock tower under the influence of the multi-camera moving video:

After watching the clock tower display families wandered the five minute walk to the arena, where they saw a continually moving, shifting version of the stills below. if you think about how irregular and crumbly a 2,000 year old arena is, it’ll give you an idea of what a feat of creation this video is, where every colorful projection matches the arches, stones and columns of the arena perfectly.

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