Monday, October 9, 2006

HOLA Zamboanga!

So, have you been to Zamboanga?
Which Zamboanga?!
Zamboanga City?
Zamboanga Del Norte?
Zamboanga Del Sur?
Zamboanga Sibugay?

Or do you actually know what and where those places are, huh?!
Afraid? Why? What are you afraid of anyway? You just heard something on radio or TV and you so quickly decided Zamboanga is a dreadful city? Shame! It’s far from being a war zone, believe me. And save for some eyesores, the place is actually grand!

So let me tell you about things Zamboanga the way I have seen or encountered them. To make everything easy for you, let us focus on just one place for starters – Zamboanga City. This city has its own kind of charm that after the first visit, you’d want to be back there by the next available long-weekend.

Here we go:

How did I know about this place?
Honestly, my first visit of Zamboanga was not anything I yearned for. It was an official assignment from my previous employer and I had no choice. But I guess this was one such opportunity that led me to discover a great place. My family and friends were apprehensive then about that very hectic two-week assignment. But it turned out uneventful. So some months later, that employer sent me again for another hectic week. After about a year or two I saw myself back there again for official business. In all three occasions, I never had the chance to go around as much as I wanted to. Not because the place was dreadful – it’s far from being so by the way – but because of this pesky little thing called “work”!

So I promised to be back there and get to know more about the locale and the locals.

Going There
For someone like me who was on business assignment from the polluted Metro Manila, there was only one choice and that was to jet into and outa Zamboanga City. You should also do so, I believe. There are other flights from other places like Cebu, Davao, Jolo, Tawi-tawi and even from Malaysia(Sandakan?) so take your most convenient pick. There are also (of course) big boats that ply from Manila and other islands. I heard a friend who is from Ilocos even made it to Zamboanga by connecting through various bus routes.

Roaming Around
Foremost, as it is very much advertised via word-of-mouth is the “barter trade”. There are a scattering of “barter centers” in the city to suit you. But don’t think of it as a literally “barter trade” like in the olden days. You don’t go to the barter center with truckloads of your personal belongings to be exchanged for anything new you might want. It’s only the name that lingered but seldom do you see actual barters like in the past. So the barter centers are actually big and small bazaars like your Divisoria, Baclaran, Greenhills or elsewhere. What’s the difference? Everything is sold at rock bottom (even underground) prices. Maxam, Plum Blossom, Ivory, White Rabbit, Maling, Champion, Camel are just one of the common things you’ll see and be tempted to buy. Warning: commercial quantities you bring out via the air or sea ports will be taxed by the local Customs Bureau. Still, it will come out cheaper!

Umbrellas for P15 each, different shapes and colours of sunglasses at P20, sandals or slippers for P22… those are even cheaper than your “special” tricycle ride in Metro Manila! Batik, silk, jerseys, rubber shoes, casual shoes, faux-leather shoes, and all the trinkets you can imagine are all over the place. There are even fans that sell for eleven pesos! It even goes to imported fruit jams, jellies, candies and chichiryas. Crackers of all kinds are easy to find. Preserves, sardines, medicines and every herbal health drink you can think of are there. Oh Zamboanga! Name it, its there!

We all of course know where these are coming from to be sold at such easy prices. “Back door entrance” is the name of the game! This is also the reason why many of those products you buy have Chinese and/or Malay names and descriptions! And that is the reason why taxes are levied for commercial quantities when you bring them out of Zamboanga as those things certainly arrived in that place without import taxes being paid. Don’t worry though… for a regular tourist like many of us, you won’t probably reach “commercial quantities” anyway! That is unless you want to bring them home to be re-sold.

How about Zamboanga for the non-shoppers?
Well, I myself believe that going around malls or bazaars for hours just to shop is capital punishment. I would rather go around town to see places. And to do this in Zamboanga, one will not be disappointed.

Start at their city hall. It is one of a kind. It looks like the old and expansive Spanish houses you see everywhere in this country. The big diff is, it is the seat of the city’s government and inside are air-conditioned rooms of the usual concrete building! Great concept – historic look from the outside and a modern functional structure from the inside! As of yet, theirs is the only city hall I saw in my life that sports something like a belfry on its roof! I can swear that it is not a chimney. But it also is not a belfry! It probably was/is a watchtower. Just the same, it looks interesting. (Apologies to fellow tourists caught by my camera in this shot. I hope they wont mind hehe!)

Nearby is another old-looking, Spanish-inspired “bahay-na-bato”. Interesting building with big steel grills and almost floor-to-ceiling capiz windows. But if you go inside, just like the city hall, its all-concrete with modern comforts and conveyances like air-conditioning, computers and ATMs. Ha? Did I say ATM? Yes, since the building is actually the Zamboanga branch of Bank of the Philippine Islands called “Banco De Las Islas Pilipinas” in the past! Just by the sidewalk you will actually notice that the capiz-shell windows are preceded by clear glass panels and preceded still by the steel grills. Secure and safe building for a bank but still quite a sight with its colonial outlook!

Go check out the Jollibee branch just across city hall by that street where the middle island has been installed with other historical statues. The Jollibee place also looks like a Hispanic inspired house! But the bright red colour and that gigantic smiling bee will in your mind highlight a dizzying contrast between modern-day branding needs and an effort to look ancient! Then the critic in you will start debating in your head at what should be and should not be… until you get hungry and actually go inside the store hehe! Don’t worry, nothing inside is colonial. It is very Jollibee just like everywhere else.

Actually if you just keep walking around the city streets, there are still other houses or buildings more that are “colonial” in style but many of them are fast changing into modern blocks of buildings. So hurry!

Now, you don’t have to go far to check out some interesting facts, figures, fallacies and fascinating bits-n-pieces about Zamboanga. Example? There are two churches in the middle of the city that are just about a block away from each other. One is called the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (or Zamboanga Cathedral). This I guess is the biggest in Mindanao. When there, I could imagine that it may actually fit all of the Manila Cathedral inside it! The church is probably even wider than Sto. Domingo Church and it has two levels like that of the St. Joseph Church near Anonas. A third level basement or lower-ground floor is an adoration chapel that in itself also looks like a church due to its size. Very big church!

Ah, incidentally, St. Joseph Parish is also the name of the other big church inside Zamboanga City. While it is no bigger than the Manila Cathedral, it is also air-conditioned! And until recently, the resident priest of this smaller but more “sosyal” church had been a Monsignor Crisanto Dela Cruz who is priest no more as he was about to run for Mayor of the city in the last elections. I have yet to check if he actually won and is now Mayor of Zambo! Called “Monsi” by many a Zamboangueño, he lives in, and manages the good old Lantaka Hotel (purportedly majority-owned by a foreign company). Very “sosyal” priest ‘noh?!

Now, now, we mentioned Lantaka. Many of you would already know that the word “lantaka” means cannon in Portuguese (and interestingly also in Waray). Yes, to many of us in the Philippines“lantaka” is “canyon”. Why is the hotel named “Lantaka Hotel By The Sea”? I know the story but am not telling now so you’ll have something to look forward to, when you visit! During its glory days, the hotel had been home to presidents and artists. It’s not the swankiest hotel in Zambo nowadays, but it still is the preferred hotel by many a traveler. Rooms are still clean and simple. Those facing the sea have verandas overlooking the pool and the boats. The hotel crews are cordial and had been so since I was last there in the late 80s! What does that mean? Go visit to discover that only a few of them are in their 20’s or 30’s. There is even one manong who is more than 60! Now that’s what I call a “Vintage” hotel! Don’t be deceived by your imagination since the hotel looks from the outside like just another rectangular block of a building. You enter from the roadside but the hotel actually faces the sea with a nice view of the pier and the Sta Cruz Islands

What about the pier? That is where you ride fastcrafts to Basilan and elsewhere! But yes, that is also where the big ships from Manila or Cebu dock. It’s a nice place to view from your Lantaka Hotel veranda when people are embarking or disembarking! Even the comings and goings of the boats are fascinating photo op moments. And when the vintas cruise by, it becomes even more splendid a view! Well, sorry I can't find any pic I want to share, except this. Its a Weesam fastcraft getting ready to hie off for Jolo, Tawi-tawi and eventually Sandakan in Malaysian Borneo.

What about the Sta Cruz Islands? Ah, this is my favourite place to visit in Zamboanga! Pinkish white sands (rare in the world). Only a few folks to bother your stay or obstruct your photo-op views or occupy the few cottages in this paradise. The sand is not as fine as Boracay but I still call it my kind of paradise. To experience serenity, where all you hear are the tree leaves and nipa palms swaying to the gentle winds, making soft whispers that seem to create an earthly chorus with the lapping of little waves on the shore… it’s truly a relaxing “non-activity” for the body and soul!

Okay, okay, there were times I had to be escorted by military folks during my tours to Sta. Cruz. But that was then. Seldom do you hear about banditry, insurgency or terrorism in this area now. The place is already [heavily] secured – it being just a few kilometres from the Zambo Pier and a busy commercial sea-lane.

There are actually 2 islands. The Little Sta. Cruz Island is to the west and nearer across the Zambo pier. It has a very long sandbar of the same pinkish white sand where you can play around during low tide. Oh, you’ll have to check with military personnel to be able to go there though. The only known habitués of the island are members of a military detachment (and sometimes their visiting families). And, sometimes, me!

The Great Sta. Cruz Island (called Isla Del Sta Cruz Grande) is the “public” island. Going to that island takes just a few minutes by motorized banca. Your tour guide will usually pack lunch for everyone. Don’t expect to see girls in their bikinis or hunks in their trunks romping around the beach. Unless its summer vacation, there will be no such distractions. You will really have the chance to commune with nature. There are a few families allowed to live on the island but they’re busier doing their jobs/chores than bother you. If you are not one who likes to snooze on the breezy beach, you can walk or paddle around the island. You’ll notice that the only unnatural sound in this area that will try to compete with the lapping waves, swaying leaves and chirping birds is… you guessed it, your pesky cellphone ringing or your noisy digital camera clicking!

Ah yes, at some little portion of the island is a little military quarters for the four or five of them ensuring your safety comfort and convenience! By the beach and facing the sea, try walking to your right. Just go on till you see nothing but the beach and grassy shrubberies. There you will stumble upon some graveyards – lucky for you if there are fresh ones – and you will see that instead of marble epitaphs you see wooden planks cut to form like totem poles. You’ll immediately notice that the grave is “fresh” when you see a white silk-like cloth still hovering on them graves. Don’t worry, they are too few so you won’t get overwhelmed hehehe! Those “totem poles” and “white-cloth” on those graves are very meaningful. Just wait till we get to the museum and see if I want to tell you about them!

Let’s go back to mainland, shall we?! If you’re staying at the Lantaka Hotel, your boatman and guide would probably whisk you straight to the hotel’s sea-front. But if you’re not staying at the Lantaka, you will notice that the boats depart/arrive from/at a nearby strip of beach fronted by a massive structure that looks like some kind of a fortress. Yes indeed, it is a fort! So hop-in to Fort Pilar. Most significant portion of this fort is the image of “El Real Fuerza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza” embossed above the façade of its northern entrance. This is the landmark of the city’s identity – their patron saint actually. The fort houses a national museum with a rich display on the life and culture of our southern brothers and sisters. I especially liked the meaning of the totem poles and white cloth on graves. Aren’t you curious what those are for? The carvings on the bows of the boats and the uses of different kinds of sea-going crafts also have meanings! Interesting! No, am not telling here so that you’ll still have something interesting to look forward to! For now let’s talk about the fort.

You can go around not only inside the fort but even ON IT! The wall is about a meter or more in thickness so its top becomes like a little pathway that you can use to skirt around the whole fortress and have a good view of the sea and the city. One of the corners is even wide enough for you to hold a party or wedding reception – if the authorities there would be creative enough to allow you!

Now the little irritant… My latest visit was probably a not so lucky weekend if the topic is only Fort Pilar. When our van arrived, a group of foreign tourists were huddled with the guard by the entrance. Another van-load of local and foreign tourists also arrived so that there were about 30 or so of us facing the guard who was telling us the museum was closed for cleaning. My tour guide was the more vocal of the souls and told the guard it was not properly announced, he did not even know, we still wanted in, even if the museum was "closed". I heard him talk to the guard in their local dialect and I understood it like he was saying “these are visitors who will mostly be leaving tomorrow and won’t probably come back in their lifetime, so let’s give them the opportunity to learn about our Zamboanga history and accord hospitality”… or something like that.

So we were allowed into the grounds and immediately roamed around including the top of the fort (as described above). Some of the foreign visitors took pictorials at the little stage where laundries were strewn to dry – obviously by/of the caretakers and/or guards. Let’s not describe what clothes those were anymore, but be happy to note that it included a brand called “warren” hehehe! That rounded “wishing-well” in the middle of the grounds with murky water and a lot of coins did serve as good photo-op area. The top is covered by welded grills with locks so you won’t have a chance to spirit those coins out! Gosh!

My travel agent was never near from contented though. So he pleaded with a cleaner to let us peek at the museum even only by the stairs. Not all the tourists busy with the pictorials or slowly piling out of the fort, but only the six of us, the people in his van. Go-signal finally received, so he quickly motioned for us to go inside, remove shoes and climb to the top of the wooden staircase. So our poor travel agent who was obviously exasperated started pointing to each diorama or display and explained to us what they were for – except for the cleaner who was snoozing at a bench with music from his AM Radio. We were happy enough to have learned those histories (no am not telling here hehehe) but could have been happier if allowed a closer look at those displays. This was at the southwestern wing of the quadrangle. When we attempted to do the same at the opposite wing, the cleaner assigned there was adamant and even shouted at our tour-guide. So we didn’t persist.

I calmly asked one of the cleaners why we were not being allowed (museum closed) when the fort was open. The intelligent and lengthy reply was: “kasi kakalinis lang namin… hindi na pwede madumihan dahil bibisita ang tourism head bukas”. So that was it! All of us in the tour-group were unanimous we knew that we were also visitors whom those displays were actually meant for. And we can be better ambassadors to advertise their little museum to the world – like here and now through this blog, I am advertising the sloppy attitudes at that place. No, I don’t blame those little bastards. Cleaners are uneducated – even mal-educated, so I would like to leave them that way. But I do wonder who is managing this edifice purportedly for the benefit of visitors like us. I guess that manager or director (whatever) is actually the one who needs some serious educating on the tourism business so that he can impart knowledge, priorities and purpose of any godforsaken museum. Anyway…

Outside of the fort, the northeastern wall that is… is the image of the Nuestra Senora Del Pilar where the expansive grounds were cemented and installed with benches that it now is an open-air chapel. More of a photo-op area for visitors than anything else.

By the way, as you perch atop the fort, you would see a street arc on the northeastern street-corner that welcomes you to a place called Rio Hondo. Go drive to that place for a different kind of experience. Have a guide. Rio Hondo means big river but it’s not the river that will fascinate you. There is a “village” where thousands of little houses are built on stilts that are interconnected to each other by a lot of bamboo poles and/or wooden planks for people to walk on. Houses and "streets" on stilts! Look down to the shallow part of the waters under the houses and you see kids playing or their parents tending to their boats. Call of nature? You don’t wanna do it nor discuss it here! Just use your imagination! And by the way too, I did not have a chance to test how friendly people in this neighborhood are. But you’d be happy to take note that our tour guide made us go out of the van strictly “two-at-a-time” with him. As he showed us some views, explaining them while we stood near the van, others in our little tour-group were locked inside the van while driver stayed put in his seat ready to spring forward at the tour-guide's command. Very few photo-ops. Get the hint please hehe!

You can move on further to about 19 or so kilometres and reach Taluksangay. It is also a village on stilts by the marshes. Samals, Badjaos and Yakans live there and practice their fine craft of mat-weaving. You can buy all the fine-crafted “banig” that you want. And yes, you can haggle too! In this village is also a colourful mosque which is said to be the oldest in Zamboanga. Even that mosque does not seem to perch completely on land. Part of it is also on stilts by the marshes!

Need more stories?
Okay, there’s the other side of Zamboanga (north & west) and first is the Pasonanca Park. Cool breezes at 500 feet above sea level. This is the “green” part of Zamboanga but ironically, there is no abundance of flowers in this “city of flowers”! What’s there is primarily the Boy & Girl Scout camp area with Tepees and a famous Tree House that you must visit. Read the stories and histories around this park too, and you’ll realize why a street in Quezon City’s “scout triangle” is related to this park.

Okay, let me tell you! Scout Limbaga was from Zamboanga… but we don’t want to discuss unfortunate things here so that's an entirely different topic…

There is an Olympic-size swimming pool, a pool continuously fed by spring water and yet another pool complete with slides and pool-what-have-yous! Attire in these pools? I see boys, girls, men and women swimming and diving in their jeans!

There is also an aviary-cum-animal park beside the picnic area. Fun talking to a talkative cockatoo that speaks Indonesian! Made me recall that there is also an Indonesian/Malaysian-speaking bird at Eden Nature Park in Davao! And the cassowary like the peacocks is just freely roaming around.

Oops I thought you won’t ask, but since it’s just across the Tree House, okay, good for you to know that the beautifully constructed Zamboanga Convention Centre is nothing more but a decaying piece of art where some government entities opted to hold their offices in (probably for "lack of budget"). We learned that the last known spectacle in that place was a grand concert of Gary Valenciano where kids smashed and broke the glass-doors, etc., Too bad the Aquino and subsequent governments only had one thing in mind – and that was/is to let beautiful things made by the Marcos management rot to oblivion. They succeeded in this case. The convention Center is a rotting piece of art.

Now if you have your own tour vehicle, head further up to the Abong-Abong Hills past the Freedom Park. You can also go the harder way via “cadi-lakad” till your lungs are out of air. Nice to see the Stations of the Cross carved out of the hill on the sides of the trail. Atop the hill, your final destination is the big cross overlooking the city. Don’t forget the photo-op!

Moving a bit down to the lowlands and west of the city there are more interesting sights!

Foremost is another old dilapidating building that was once made to be the headquarters of the ARMM. It is now the barracks of a Philippine Marines detachment. While you will still see traces that the building is beautiful and in a very good location overlooking the city, you will be sad to realize that the soldiers there won’t allow you to get nearby for an artistically-acceptable view or shot of the whole edifice. Sigh! So move on and skirt the end of the runway that is aptly occupied by a cemetery and circle back towards the city.

The Yakan Village is also a nice stop to watch native Yakans do their weaving things. And this is one of the tourists’ favourite shop spots for pasalubongs. Not only the woven tubaws, doilies or pillow cases can be had here. You can spot a lot of traditional musical instruments like the gaddang, T’boli Bells, kulintang, drums, gongs and many more. Even different sizes of knives and the Kris swords are aplenty and cheap. A little beyond is the La Vista Del Mar Resort which we only saw from the outside but we hear that the place is great for families. It looks expensive hehe!

Still there is the Zamboanga Golf and Country Club. Not that it has anything spectacular anymore, but this is/was the first golf course in this country and is still fairly maintained. Oh there is the Golf Beach and even Yellow Beach just beside if you’re interested. We were not!

Back in the city, don’t forget to head to the Cawa-cawa Beach which in many parts is no more a beach since the city made a road widening there. It’s more like the Roxas Boulevard but definitely cleaner. And yes, Zamboangueños still go there to swim. It’s also a nice place to stroll along during late afternoons.

Eating
How about your stomach? Eat everything you see but don’t forget the Curacha. It’s a crustacean that seems to be a cross between the alimasag and the lobster only found by the waters of Zamboanga – so they say. Tastes gloriously yummy especially if cooked with coconut milk by the famous and original Alavar’s. Alavar’s is a charming restaurant set in the old-fashioned way. But the place is air-conditioned for the added comfort!

We tried visiting every eating place listed in my little handy travel book but most of them would usually offer the type of safe, clean and ordinary menu most Philippine cities would have, so we tried venturing out to little sometimes unnamed eateries – even at the palengke! You’ll be fascinated with the Moresqueta Frito – it’s a concoction of rice, sausage and many things – be sure to specify if you want it “caliente”(spicy hot) or not.

Now if you are a food adventurer, you should not miss the little carinderias or street-side eateries for the Murtabak Ayam or Murtabak Daging, Satti, Roti Telor or Roti Kosong and many more. No, those are not out-of-this-world eatables. They’re just your regular fare like bread, chicken or beef cooked in a different exotic way!

Then again, if you are the ma-arte type, there is your regular burger and chicken chains scattered all over the city. Now I must say this… while walking from the Lantaka Hotel towards the City Hall, watch out for this little coffee shop on the left side of the street. They serve delectable pastries and cakes – I liked the chicken empanada. Plus, this little store is just across to a little bazaar! How convenient!

Final judgment about the eating and eateries… my travel book won! We liked Hana Sono for its classy Japanese setting and good Japanese food – and we only have to climb to Garden Orchid's lobby to enjoy the bar fare. We also liked “The Village” which is just actually beside Garden Orchid (therefore Hana Sono) for the family atmosphere while dining. This is an expansive restaurant with outdoor and indoor eating areas and kids' play areas. Due to the number of patrons esp during evenings, service will sometimes be slow – but bearable. And we had a grand time at Alavar’s for its homey setting and not usually crowded and away from busy streets plus of course the Curacha!

Evening Entertainment
How about the night owls? Well, you have a choice from the lowly carinderias’ karaoke machines to the 5-star comfort family KTVs. Bars and bands, specialty restaurants, dance places? Check-out Camins Avenue. There’s everything for everyone in the family from your Lolo to the little darlings down to your beer-garden-hungry uncle!

I specially like the comforts and quality of entertainment at the Garden Orchid Hotel. Plus, they have a Japanese restaurant, and dance club and a spa – all in one place with a nice big swimming pool!

There are several places to chill-out in Zambo but we particularly liked this little coffee shop called “Coffee Mix & Pastries. An emulation of your famous Starbucks, they serve good coffee and pasties amidst continuous good music. PLUS, they also serve beers. This hip little place is air-conditioned and partitioned into two sitting areas for smokers and non-smokers. Plus there are tables and chairs outside with big umbrella like canopies and the crowd is yuppy great! This is on the other side of the city from Camins and just beside a highway.

Oh, we noticed that many of the older set would usually hub-nub at the restaurant and bar by Lantaka Hotel’s lobby overlooking the sea. Music here is Jazzy cool and the (also) aged singer and his (equally old) pianist may even invite you to try out “The Nearness of You” or “Misty”! There are little huts outside of the lobby if you want your evening fare a bit more private but within hearing distance of the jazzy music.

If nothing above seems to cater to your tastes, sleep!

Last Notes
Since you already know that there are a lot of mestizas down there in Zambo, you probably already know too that they speak Chavacano. It’s a mixture of the Spanish, Visayan and Malay languages, and very interesting to listen to! Here are some examples:
[greeting] Quetal man uste?
[answer] Buenamente man, gracias! or Okey man yo!

By the way, the Regional Tourism Office is right in the Lantaka Hotel's Building (just beside the street) but it has a separate entrance than the hotel. The City Tourism Office is at a little park beside the city hall. Note that like everywhere else in this country, these tourism offices will be closed on weekends and during holidays. When I visited those tourism offices, I chanced upon guards wearing only their undershirts! Now I remember the Albay Tourism Office. It was exactly the same sight!

Yes yes, tourists, esp the locals (that’s us) have time to roam around mostly during weekends, long weekends or holidays ONLY as otherwise, they should be sweating it out in their offices to earn money. But the government people do not see this. So if you need assistance of the tourism office while on tour, catch them only on a weekday and not during lunch-time okay? They don’t care who their customers are and when their customers need them. They just maintain an office you know! They're just employees, y'know!Etc etc etc

Back to Zambo! My personal observation is that there are a lot more Christians in Zamboanga City than Muslims (as if that matters hehe) but like in any Philippine city, the Tsinoys are dominant in many businesses. Those are just according to my personal encounters – and no proven statistics, okay?! At least I have an idea why the ARMM did not maintain their regional center in this place!

Most, if not all of the bazaar vendors are Muslims but all of them speak Tagalog and English while some of them can even converse in fluent Bahasa (Malaysian or Indonesian). One interesting encounter with one such vendor was a woman who stopped us from taking pictures of the thousands of boxes of sun-glasses in her stall. When we asked why, she said in Tagalog “malas daw yan para sa negosyo”. I wonder why! By using the word “daw”, even she was not sure how it becomes “malas” hehehe. Just the same, we heeded, but we were still allowed to take our pictures with everything in the background – just not direct to her products!

Finally, when in a bar, try clapping your hands twice (just twice please) in the fastest and loudest manner. A waiter or waitress will usually come rushing to your side! No one will frown upon what you just did. Promise! But, do you know how this kind of gesture got assimilated in the Zamboangueno's habit? Well, I know but am not telling you now. Go there and find out!

Oh well... So, till then?!

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