Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Golf In Riyadh With Non-Golfers

We aren't really golfers.  On the rare occasions we have headed to a golf course to play a round, we do our best but, speaking for myself, divots tend to fly further than the golf ball I was aiming for.  Hubster, on the other hand, likes to belt the bejesus out of the ball.  A cracking 'THWACK' always accompanies his tee offs.  Then, more often than not, he strides off to the fringes of the course, looking for his ball.  Last week we invited ourselves along to play 18 holes at Riyadh Golf Club, more commonly known as Riyadh Greens.  Our efforts that day reaffirmed that we are, without doubt, not golfers.

Riyadh Greens is one of a number of golf courses in Riyadh.  Others include the Dirab Golf Club where we have ridden the bikes to with Mr Finland to bash balls about on the range.  Hubster has visited the course at the Intercontinental Hotel a couple of times, but he doesn't like it because it's small and he can't smack the ball in his usual, 'Lets See How Hard I Can Damage This' fashion.  And I caught a glimpse of the course at Arizona Compound when attending a Ladies Breast Cancer Coffee Morning.  Apparently they have a ladies golf morning at Arizona but, not being a golfer, I've never felt inclined to go.

Obviously life was getting rather boring in Riyadh, hence my insistence to Hubster, who was looking doubtful, that we really wanted to go play an 18 hole round of golf.  The Kiwi Friend we invited ourselves along with was adamant that our being novices didn't bother him at all.  Fairly soon after picking us up he was likely changing his mind.  He pulled up outside our compound and we jumped, as enthusiastically as one can at 5.30 in the morning, into the vehicle.

He wondered where our golf clubs were.
We presumed we could hire some once we got there.
Then, we being completely green regarding golf club etiquette, were sent back inside to get collared shirts.

Riyadh Greens is about 30 minutes north of Riyadh and it looks quite nice for a golf club. (Not having been in many I don't have a huge comparative frame of reference).  After signing in and paying for our round of golf and 2 sets of hired clubs (it set us back 1000SAR), we headed out to our cart excited, in the cool'ish morning air, about getting a chance to show off what little golfing skills we have.  One of us was excited, anyway.  The other one had this grumpy essence emanating from his being.  While strapping the golf bag to the cart it occurred to us we didn't have golf balls.  Or tees. So back indoors Hubster went to get us fully equipped.  With a shake of his head, it was finally dawning on our Kiwi Friend that, Yes, we are rookies!

Our cart was guided out onto the first tee (yahoo I got to drive), where we met a gentleman who was golfing alone and he asked if he could join our group.  It's just as well, because it gave our Kiwi Friend someone to talk golf with while waiting for us (well, me) to bunny hop my way up the fairway for every single hole.  Heading to the fringes to help Hubster search for balls also took a bit of time.  The Great Bald Golfer lost the three new balls he'd bought that morning, replacing them with old dungary ones found while roaming through the sand out by the fence, or fished out of water hazards. Note: every pond required fishing!

We'd arrived at Riyadh Greens at 6am, a perfectly good time to play golf in desert city, and it was an absolutely beautiful day.  The sky was blue, the greens were green, the sun beat down as it rapidly climbed to a roasting 40 degrees, the water traps took our balls, the water boy on his cart was a regular welcome sight and the golfing standard (ours, that is) never really improved.  Hubster quit tallying our score fairly early in the piece, much to my disgust.  I wanted proof I suck!  He was fairly certain that once you hit double figures you're supposed to stop counting.

Five hours later after swinging, missing, cursing, bunny hopping, sand trapping, chipping, raking, sand trapping and raking again, searching, cheating, sweating, drinking, carting, putting and fishing our way around the Riyadh Golf Club course, we made it to the restaurant for a well deserved, ice cold glass of juice!

My arms were killing me and I was buggered.
I'd never believed my mother when she said golf was excellent exercise. (Mum rather likes golf and has spent a bit of time chipping, putting and driving her way around the Whangaroa golf course, back home).

Slouched on the couch at the cafe with the cool, air conditioned breeze washing over me, I gazed out the windows toward the last hole, it's flag fluttering in the breeze, workmen in orange overalls nearby tending the wilting flowers and three Asian blokes standing about the green, and thought - golfers are fruitcakes!  Who the heck enjoys playing golf in a frikken desert!

Directions and Map to Riyadh Golf Club

View Kiwi In Saudi: Tiki Tour in a larger map

Despite my rather awful efforts out on the golf course and my inability to fall in love with the game, I've decided I will be returning to Riyadh Greens again before we leave Saudi.  Not for golf, Crikeys no!  They've got some golf markers down in the pro-shop that I was too buggered to pick up this trip.  I want to get them as presents for Mum.

Ka Kite,

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Clicky Expat Groups

"Please Do Not Forward 

The Information In This Email"

We were talking one night about why Saudi expats tend to operate in clicky, almost closed, groups.
It's a question of survival, we decided.
Not the 'poverty line' type of survival.
It's more the 'quality of life' situation.

You see, it is possible to live a fairly normal life in Riyadh if you operate under the radar.  If expats don't draw unnecessary attention to themselves or their activities, official types are often prepared to turn a blind eye to our get together's.  As one official type told me, 'We know you Westerners are different'.

Unfortunately, if you invite the wrong expat along, the kind who thinks disregard for the rules should be thrown in the face of locals and official types alike, well, they just stuff everything up for everybody else.

Officialdom will act if they have to.
The trick is to not make them have to.
Hence the caution exercised when inviting people to join expats in their exploits.

It takes a bit of work to create a 'normal' social life in Saudi.  Expats who have been here for the longer term tend to be hoha (Maori word for annoyed) with selfish fly-by-nighters who don't give a toss about how their inability to Keep Mum affects everybody else.  (I categorize Long Term expats are those who've been here at least 15 - 20 years, and there are quite a few.  Expats married to Saudi's do not fall into the Long Term expat category.  They are in the 'Married to a Saudi' group).

Not all Long Termer's have survived here because they have Saudi friends in high places that can get them, or their mates, out of trouble if needed.  (Granted some do).  No, the secret to their survival has been, and continues to be, being smart about living around the rules and culture in KSA.  And they tend to be careful who they invite into their carefully cultivated circle.

When a short term Whipper Snapper starts attracting attention to him/herself, or the group, they aren't looked on kindly by their fellow expats.  Said Whipper-Snapper may also wonder why invitations to functions and other activities suddenly start to dry up if they don't alter their behavior.

When I first arrived in Riyadh, I thought being part of a clicky expat group was a bit, well, snotty.  I've changed my view, just a bit.  It's nice being part of a social group where life almost feels normal, and if that means that Hubster and I have to keep the details sketchy for a couple of things we are involved in, then so be it.  We are here for a while longer yet (insha'allah), and want to protect our activities from thoughtless types who risk spoiling what we, and our fellow Saudi Expat Socializers, have going.

As an aside, mixed expat groups, the ones I know anyway, tend to be particularly cautious of inviting along Arab men largely because Arab men like to jump on board expat activities and then behave like twats.  As one male friend said, 'It seems to be an Arab bloke thing to be completely sleazy around as many females as possible, but the worst thing is presuming all men want to talk dirty, sexual gutter speak about women'.  He reckons the way a lot of Arab men talk about women is disgusting!  Hubster concurs.

One evening Hubster was invited to a neighbors apartment to watch a game of rugby, and a young Arab man turned up as well.  Hubster had to cut the evening short, with a few carefully selected words, and come home because all the young Arab man wanted to do was talk graphically dirty about his latest female conquest.  It just didn't get through his thick skull that the audience in the lounge was not interested!  (Heads up Arab blokes - if you're having trouble integrating with some of the expat groups out there it's probably 'cause you're a twat!)

Although I sometimes feel a little bit selfish not sharing my clicky expat activities....I get over it fairly quickly.  It doesn't pay to forget where I am.  Life in Riyadh is not (yet) normal.  Flouting the religious rules can land you in deep kaka. The Kingdoms political situation is not stable and has the potential to blow up at any time should conservatives become unhappy with how things are changing.   And Saudi sensibilities are extremely sensitive.  Being smart about which activities I advertise, publicly or privately, is always the best plan and I admit for one such activity it took a call from a fellow Kiwi telling me to pull my head in (in a nice way) to remind me of that.

Ka Kite,

Monday, 9 September 2013

Riyadh's Computer Souq

There is a computer souq in Riyadh.  It's along Olaya Street near the Holiday Inn, or there abouts.  At least, that's where Mr Noor took us when we were in need of an updated version of software for the lap-top.

 Most people download their software direct from cyber space to computer.  We tried that, it didn't work.  When we sent a message to the "Help" service, they weren't much help.  Sending screeds of tech jargon via email to the technologically challenged is no assistance at all.  Not picking up a phone when we ring is equally useless.  Hence our trip to Riyadhs' computer souq. 

It wasn't quite what I expected, though I'm not really sure what I was expecting. 

I still live in the hope that I will turn up to a specialty store in Riyadh and find specialty service.  Someone who knows absolutely everything about the specialty I'm having difficulty with and can convey the information in a language that I can understand.  That would mean 'non-jargon' type language.  It also means English - pure, clear, unaccented English. 

Ok, so maybe a little bit of accent is OK, but when I have to say with a squinty frown, "Can you say that again?" it's oft because the accent is making the English words quite  incomprehensible.  (I only squint-frown when asking accent related questions because I presume it implies that I didn't understand a word being said!).

Choosing software is far too important not to be able to understand the bloke selling you the product.
Then I arrive at a place like the computer souq and remember - I'm in Riyadh.

There's not a technician in the place.  There's not a technician in any of the places.  At least, no one comes forth with a label mounted behind clear plastic identifying himself as a software wizard.

If you plan to go to this computer souq, come knowing exactly what you're looking for.  We gathered, quite quickly, that most of the men offering assistance in the stores have limited knowledge of the wares they are selling.  And what they do know, many can't communicate at any great length in English.

Those that knew a spot of English would grab a box from the nearest pile, not even having asked what we're looking for, and shove it in front of us with 'This one'.  If asked 'What does it do?' they would swivel their hand round and back like a washing machine, twisting at the wrist with the box held in their fingers, while garbling something unintelligible, ending with 'You take?'
'Ummmm.....No thanks'.
Moving on.

Others would see us coming into the shop and stare.
Nothing else.  Just stare.
Their reaction made me think white folk and women roaming through computer souqs in Riyadh was a rare treat!

Women can easily get annoyed by the eye popping in Riyadh and, on bad hair days, one is prone to respond with negative aggression.  It's usually a waste of energy.  The buggars just move off a ways and stare!   It's best to simply ignore staring men and focus on finding my software among the stacked boxes taking up most of the space on shop floors.

Hubster was ready to give up on our search for required software quite soon after arrival.  He puts up with enough fools at work (or so his daily tirades about fools at work has me believe) and tends to be rather terse when he meets clueless types on his afternoons off.  But the computer and internet are a very large part of my Riyadh life, so I had no intention of leaving till I'd found, and purchased, what I'd come for.

As Hubster was attempting dialogue in one shop, I wandered across the street to a place slightly detached from the rest and found a salesmen who seemed to have a clue and whose banjo sounding English required minimal deciphering.  (Or perhaps I had attuned my ears by this point).

Said salesman was also happy to talk to a female.
It's nice in a jungle of stary eyes to find someone 'normal'.

Hubster gets slightly annoyed that I wander off on our jaunts around Riyadh souqs but, being quite astute, I can very quickly pick up when people and places are wasting my time.  He is more of a bulldog.  He'd rather persist with questioning, chasing after answers that a salesman simply cannot give then, though getting annoyed with the lack of progress, pushing on expecting, almost willing, that soon the answer he seeks will materialize from frightened eyes and dry, nervous, non-English speaking lips.

I prefer to move on, and do.
He then gets upset that I'm not in protective view.
His paranoia of my kidnap from Riyadh streets is almost as irritating as his insistence on getting some sort of sense from sales folk who do not have a response to give.
I've told him he'd have more luck if he learnt their language.
He retorts with huffy, growly look!

Because of these unexpected, though in hindsight totally obvious, Riyadh-ian issues, our quick trip to the computer souq was rather longer than we had planned.  We left in the hope our purchase would do what the English writing on the outside and the excited nods and banjo plucking English of the guy in the shop said it would do.

(Hallelujah, it did!)

Location of the Riyadh Computer Souq

Hubster was adamant a return to the computer souq would not be on the cards in his Riyadh lifetime.  I'm not so quick to dismiss the place because, let's face it, help has still not arrived for the online software.  Neither has a refund!

Ka Kite,

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Renting A Car In Riyadh

TDRA on Olaya.  We've rented a couple of vehicles from here.  Nasser is a nice bloke.

We don't own a four wheeled vehicle in Riyadh so, if we want to go further afield on our Saudi Tiki Tours than a taxi can take us, we have to rent.  Fortunately, renting a car in Riyadh is easy.

Every now and then we do contemplate buying a car and, one day, Hubster even went so far as to ring up and enquire about a bright red Bentley, about fifteen years old, sitting on a vacant lot on Tahalia St, with a for sale sign displayed.  He showed me the car.  Discussion then ensued regarding the Pro's and Cons of owning a vehicle in Riyadh...

Moi - Con - I can't drive it just because I'm 'femme fatale' in KSA.
Hubby - Con - He doesn't have a parking space at work to park it.
Pro - We have a parking space here on the compound.
Moi - Con - It will sit in the parking space at the compound all week because he can't take it to work due to lack of parking space and I can't use it unless we hire a driver.
Con - having to hire a driver for the week because I can't drive it.
Con - it's not a four wheel drive, we can't take it into the desert.
Hubby - Pro - He looks good in it.  (uh huh!)
Hubby - Pro - it's an old beauty that we wouldn't own anywhere else.
Con - It's left hand drive so we won't be taking it back to NZ.
Con - Money spent on this will be less money able to be spent on travel.
Hubby - Pro - It will be cool to drive around.  (Moi - Is that actually a 'pro'?  I have my doubts.)
The more we talked, the more the con's had it.  In the end, we came to the conclusion, someone regretfully so, that this particular vehicle would not be practical for us at this, or any, point in time during our stay in Saudi.

So, we rent.
Most often a GMC Yukon.

Hubster loves the GMC.  It's a big 'don't argue with me car' and I admit it drives like a breeze.  When you put your foot down the pick up is fabulous and it's so easy to handle. (Not that I'm speaking from driving experience here in Saudi.  Of course I'm not!).  We prefer the short wheel base Yukon - it suits our needs perfectly. 

One week we spied a huge, extra large GMC Yukon parked outside a rental agency and, no doubt, it would have easily fit our travelling companions, my mountain bike, the Bar-B and all the food.  (We tend to travel with sufficient supplies to feed an army).   Hubster was keen as mustard but I thought it was a bit over the top.  Turns out it wasn't 4WD so we passed on it.  Our mind set is simple when hiring vehicles to hit the Saudi outback - Desert driving requires 4WD.

How to rent.

Renting a car in Riyadh is usually a piece of cake.  If you're a resident you need a Saudi Drivers Licence and your Iqama.  If you're here on a temp visit or business visa, or don't yet have an Iqama, you can use an International Drivers Licence with your passport for ID.

Finding a rental car in Riyadh isn't a problem either.  Rental places are plentiful.  Finding an agent you're happy with takes a bit of trial and error though.  Mr Inam, on one of our rental car searches, took us to a Rental Car Souq he liked and that his uncle worked at.   We were hopeful of a good deal but the minute they saw a bald headed white fulla the price escalated, though the car quality didn't improve any!  Moving on to the next place was an easy decision.

We have discovered that the mileage allowed on rentals can sometimes be a bit low and have, on a wayward wonder through the back roads outside Riyadh, racked up the kilometers and ended up paying for it.  Our friends also recommend reading the small print on the insurance so you don't end up paying for any other surprises, like new tyres, though I think the guy they rented from was a crook.

Which is the other issue with renting cars in Riyadh.  If you're going to rent from the corner agent because you're looking for the cheaper deal you will have to use your well tuned judge of character to determine whether or not he's as good as his word or shifty as desert sands.  Many corner agents have zero or limited English (or should I say we have terrible Arabic) which increases chances for misunderstandings in translation.

The other issue with rentals that is kind of annoying, is the reek of cigarette smoke that often accompanies them.  For we non-smokers it's a pain in the proverbial.   I am now in the habit of taking a whiff of the vehicles before giving Hubster the nod.  If it stinks, we won't take it.  Hubster thinks I'm being picky - an opinion probably developed the night we traipsed around four car rental agencies before I found one that smelled right.  Given that cigarette smoke is a trigger for migraines, I think I'm being perfectly reasonable!

Hubster brought home a stinky car once. I spent hours attempting to defume the seats and floor with baking soda and carpet cleaner and perfumes and anything else I could get my hands on, letting it all sit overnight and vacuuming it all out the following morning.  My cleaning efforts included smatterings of swear words and abuses at smokers in general and at Hubster for bringing a reek tank home and presuming I'd be happy about it!

The Yukon is not the only vehicle we have used because, being impulsive types (or is that highly disorganised), we sometimes don't book it early enough from our usual guy and have to take what is available at the agents down the road.

To date we have set out into the Saudi highways, by-ways, and occasional desert tracks, in the following vehicles (in case you're the least bit interested):

The Hyundai Tuscan got us from A to B but the suspension left a lot to be desired.  Every bump was felt in the Tuscan and, given that Riyadh's side roads can be rough, if the driver is not paying attention to passenger comfort it can be an unpleasant drive.   This vehicle took us out to the quad bikes at the Red Sands once or twice.

We've also hired a Toyota Corolla which is a smaller car but was the only thing available at short notice.  We actually took this vehicle out to the Camel Trail which, now that the track has been graded, doesn't require 4WD though some careful driving over a couple of rough spots is a good plan.

The Honda Accord we only hired once.  Hubster just didn't fancy it, though it did a perfectly good job delivering us to Graffiti Rock.

A Toyota Fortuna delivered us to The Edge of The World.  I have to say, it handled quite well and our passengers said the ride in back was very comfy.  Hubster thought it sounded like a diesel farm vehicle and found the room in front a little squished for his liking.  Perhaps he ought to lose some excess inches round the midriff.  Nasser, from TDRA car rentals is a nice bloke to deal with and we have rented the vehicle from him a couple of times.

The Prado Landcruiser we took out to RawDhat Khuraim the first time we went there.  It wasn't the V8 model so lacked the power Hubster prefers, though it got us out of a few ruts and soft spots without any problem.

The Chevy Silverado might look chunky, but is a complete waste of time (and I'm paraphrasing Hubsters words which included some non-mentionables).  However, we got it because a friend was moving compounds so, on the plus side, the nice big tray certainly came in handy for that.

It is possible to find inexpensive cars for rent in Riyadh if you're on a bit of a budget.  We should be on a budget but when a rev head bloke is told he can have a big, grunty workhorse, as opposed to a Mitsi Mirage with dents, budget sometimes takes a back seat.  And besides, where else in the world could we hire a huge, gas guzzling truck and fill it which cheap as chips petrol.

When Mr Finland was in charge of car rental we always got something cheap and nasty (Bank types and Accountants are like that!) that he thrashed the guts out of but it got us where we needed to go.  One such vehicle took us out to the Camel Trail before the track was graded, another he drove all the way to Ushaiger Village and back, even offering me the wheel, though Hubster gave a tsk tsk snort (I have no idea how to do a tsk tsk snort, but he can) which put an end to that idea.  Why did he object?   He feels that if anyone is going to get into trouble because I like to get behind the wheel he'd prefer it was only me, not our friends as well.  Honestly, what good are friends if they can't get in trouble with you?

Anyway, the other day, while at the rental agency, we were offered a Lexus 4WD for 2000SAR a day (about $800NZ).  Or we could get ourselves a Hummer. Can you you imagine Hubster drooling about renting these vehicles?  (He can drool as much as he likes, we aren't spending that much cash hiring a car!)   If you're an expat planning a stint in Riyadh, don't panic about getting a vehicle.  Renting or leasing a car in Riyadh is easy and there are plenty to choose from.

Ka Kite,

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Fabulous Travel Agent, Not In Riyadh

It's holiday season in Saudi,  the time when expats exchange ideas and information on destinations to visit in Saudi or elsewhere.  There are so many options to choose from.  Unlike a number of friends planning their get aways, I won't be crawling the net looking for flights to, and booking hotels at, our chosen destination.  No.  I leave that to my Fabulous Travel Agent, Nikki.

I'd like to say that Fabulous Travel Agent hails from Riyadh.  But no.  She lives in Kiwiland and is but an e-mail away.  Whenever we get the urge to fly away to exotic destinations, we utilize her expertise for organizing our flights, and often rely on her recommendations for accommodation if friends or whanau cannot be found at our intended holiday spot.

Hubster and I have used travel agencies in Riyadh before.
Unfortunately, they just haven't quite got themselves together.
Where they fall down is customer service.
And dealing with women.  We seem to make them nervous.

The usual performance we have come across when dealing with local travel agents is highlighted in this story and, I admit, it was this visit at the end of a string of many that made us decide 'Never Again'.
At the airline office no-body bothered to ask if we'd like help when we walk in.   There were five men in the office, at desks, looking busy though likely surfing the net.  They look at us then look away, practicing Work Avoidance.  When Hubster asks a the bloke at the desk nearest if he could help us with flights, he says no, he's not the Flight Man.  
Flight Man was out. ETA back at his chair, unknown.   
We go for a wander down the road and come back ten mintures later.
Flight Man is in.

We discuss flights and book tickets.  We double check what is booked as Flight Man's strong accent makes me doubt whether he's got the details right.  We hand over our card to pay.   They don't take Visa that day.  We have to go get cash that day.  'You're joking' said Hubster.  'No', Flight Man says.  Hubster looks at Flight Man.  Flight Man looks back.  Hubster looks at me.  I sigh, and return his gaze thinking yep, of course, this is Saudi where very little is straight forward.
 I ask where is the nearest ATM?  Flight Man explains the ATM location in a tone that suggests we should already know this information.  'What if I don't have that much in my account', asks Hubster.  A shoulder was shrugged. 'You must get cash'.  The bored, disinterested head returns to looking at a computer doing not much in particular I'm sure.
Hubster looks exasperated.  We discuss our options.  I say I'll wait because it's warm out and I don't see the point in both of us walking to the ATM.  Plus if I leave here, I might decide not to come back, so I take a seat.   
Hubster isn't sure that is such a good plan given I'm the only women in the place, but I've put myself into stubborn 'Don't A Rats Arse If I'm Not Supposed To Sit Here On My Own' mode and pull out my book to read. because I'm fairly certain a female who can read will make the men in this joint feel nervous.  Or inadequate. Either is just fine with me.
Hubster heads out the door and returns looking irritated.  The ATM took more finding than expected. (Of course).  He begins to hand cash to Flight Man with a comment on his difficulties locating ATM.  Comments are greeted with a disinterested 'Oh really'.  Flight Man then tells Hubster the cash has to go to Money Guy, and points him out at the desk on the other side of the room.  There is a silent, yet definite pause as Hubster inhales.  Lips are pressed together.  Cash is taken to Money Guy.  Money Guy has to wait for Flight Guy to give him an invoice.  It takes a while.
Another man walks into the agency (we'll call him Interrupter Saudi) and speaks to Money Guy in non-peaceful tones, attempting to body lean Hubster out of his way.  Hubster gives him a "Don't Interrupter Me" look and doesn't budge an inch. 
Interrupter Saudi eventually leaves.  Money Guy goes through a door at the back of the office, and soon his shadowy shape can be seen, through the Venetian blinds, talking to Office Saudi Guy in situ at his desk.  Presumably he received the cash.  We wait.   
Money Guy comes back to his desk, sits, says nothing, doesn't look at us and shuffles papers.  Hubster and I looked at each other.  'Do we get a receipt or our tickets?' says Hubster to Money Guy.  Money Guy gets up and goes to Another Guy.  Words are spoken.  Money Guy returns to his seat, waving us to go deal with Another Guy.   
Another Guy had his back to us.  A printer, an old dot-matix by the sound of it, cranked itself into use.  Minutes later, the sound of paper being torn from the printer can be heard.  Another Guy looks at Money Guy who nods in our direction and a receipt is handed over.   
'The tickets?', asks Hubster.   Another Guy waves us back to Flight Man.  'The tickets?', repeats Hubster.'  You will have to come back and get those after three days', says Flight Man. 
I'm not sure how to describe in writing that thing people do when they exhale their breath, not in a sigh but more of a controlled irritation suppression with lots of air.  Hubster did that once outside the office. 'What a bloody mission', he says threw gretted teeth.

That is why we use Fabulous Travel Agent, Nikki, not from Riyadh.
Nikki - Thank you so much!

Ka Kite,

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