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Published: September 29th 2012
Historic Center São Luis
São Luis is a city of over a million people, which by Brazil standards is just a big town. In the extreme northeast of the country, it has its own culture
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Brazil & Argentina 1997
We finished teaching in
De Castro Family
Camila's dad, Camie & her mom, in the back Camie's brother Taji and on the far right, Fabiana Camie's sister
Ecuador the end of January 1997 and left February first for Brazil. We went first to Ouro Preto
in the southeast, a small, picturesque mining town set high (read nice and cool) in the mountains.
From Ouro Preto we flew to join *Camila De Castro
and her family, and *Marcela Sahade
(Argentina) in São Luis Maranhão
in the extreme northeast for Carnival (Mardi Gras).
*Camila & Marcela (plus Jaqueline from Guatemala & Marysia from Poland) lived with us in Alaska in 1991 - 1993; Marcela’s twin sister, Victoria, was a Rotary Exchange student with us 1988. For more recent photos of them see the Costa Rica blog: http://www.travelblog.org/fred.php?id=586060
- Costa Rica January 2011
We had never met Camila’s family, even though Camie had lived with us for two years in Alaska. It was wonderful to finally get to know these delightful, warm people. Camie’s sister, Fabiana
, and brother, Taji
, are just like her - fabulous. The entire De Castro family is close; most of Camie’s father’s family lives in São Luis. Some of her mother’s family is there too. We met so many wonderful people it was hard to keep track
Camila & Taji
Camie and her younger brother Taji
- particularly when they were unfamiliar Portuguese names. To confuse matters, Camie’s father’s parents had named all five of their children with names beginning with “a.”
São Luis is hot - always. We took a minimum of three cold showers a day. There are no hot water knobs in the showers or sinks. Since the temperature rarely goes below 75˚ F (24˚ C) and is usually 85˚ - 90˚ F (30˚ - 31˚ C.) with 100%!h(MISSING)umidity, cold showers were most welcome.
Carnival was fabulous. It officially begins the Friday before Ash Wednesday, when it officially ends. In reality, pre-Carnival parties start a week before, and nobody goes back to work until the Monday after Ash Wednesday. That means the country is shut down for 10 days, minimum.
Shut down for work, but geared up for fun. We went to the street fair one night, which is similar to a county fair in the states - food, vendors, games, strolling street performers. But mostly (4 nights in a row) we went to the beach carnival. Bleachers were set up on both sides of the beach road (nice breeze off
the ocean). Bands on slow-moving platforms equipped with huge speakers and with their groups of costumed dancers in the street below inched down the road. It took about an hour for a group to pass. There were four or five bands each night.
Marcela was studying Portguese so understood many of the lyrics to the songs, but Bernard and I understood almost nothing. So to get into the swing of things, we (with input from Camie & Janaina) made up English lyrics to all the songs - some of which we still remember. Each Carnival season seems to have certain favorite songs, which are played over and over again, so we had a chance to refine and remember our clever (not!) new lyrics.
There were different levels of spectator accommodations: on the street in the “popcorn” section, so called because you are so packed together you can’t dance - only pop up and down; open bleachers; or our stand, which was about a story high and consisted of private boxes, with food and drink service, toilets, etc. First class. Only 20 people per box allowed. We brought tables, chairs, food & drink, along with
streamers, hats, noise-makers, etc.
Starting about 10 p.m. we and various De Castro family members gathered in our box where we were eye-level with the bands as they inched by. Until 3 - 4 a.m. we danced, ate, drank, talked and generally had a great time. Sitting was only done by the elderly (Camie’s grandmother) or infirm. People rarely sat as it was impossible to stay still when surrounded by Brazilians who were born to boogie. They are incredible dancers. Bernie swears Brazilian women are born with hips that are connected differently than Anglo-Saxon hips, otherwise the movements they make would be physically impossible.
Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses, Barreirinhas
After Carnival Camie, Marcela, Bernie, I and a friend of Camie’s, Janaina, went to the extreme northeast of Brazil to a most incredible sand dune park. Barreirinhas, gateway town adjacent to the park, wasn’t even in our guide book. Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses is on the Atlantic coast and has 387,500 acres of sand dunes accessible by boat as a river runs through it.
After a harrowing nine-hour bus ride, it was easy to understand why this national treasure
Janaina was a classmate of Camie's at university. She is standing in front of a tiled wall, one of the many beautiful tiled buildings in São Luis
is so little visited. The road was gravel (sand, mud & clay) with deep ruts and many washed-out sections. The bus was crowded with people balancing in the aisles, which meant if you had an aisle seat you were frequently jostled, poked and sometimes sat upon. We had purchased our tickets several days in advance (Camie was well organized), so were the lucky few who had seats.
I almost never get motion sickness, but I was frequently on the verge on this ride as the bus dipped and swayed from side-to-side at a considerable angle. I had to close my eyes for the most part because of the visual effect and also because I was afraid the bus was going to dip too far one time and not recover.
Four times we had to get off the bus and walk over wobbly bridges - I guess they were afraid the bus might not make it and we were better off on foot. Once the bus wasn’t able to cross a bridge, but they knew that ahead of time and another bus was waiting on the other side. We had to walk across over a
Carnival São Luis
This is one of the band transports surrounded by the "popcorn" dancers
wide, fast-flowing river on a makeshift, two plank contraption with no handrails - NOT my favorite part of the trip.
Did I mention that it took nine hours to reach the little town from which you go into the dunes? But we arrived safely and Camie had arranged a hotel. The owner was at the bus station to meet us. He was also the tour director, restaurant owner, boat concessionaire, and probably the mayor as well. We were lucky to have him on our side as the first snag developed upon arriving in Barreirinhas and trying to buy tickets back to São Luis. You can only purchase the tickets in the town from which you are departing, hence our lack of return tickets. As luck would have it, there were no seats available for the day we needed, and since Marcela had a plane to catch back to Argentina, we were not flexible. Well, yadda, yadda, yadda, our hotel owner made arrangements for us to fly a small plane (6 seater) back. Now lets see, nine hours on a bus from hell or 30 minutes in the air? No contest, and we got to fly over the
Carnival São Luis
Fabiana, Janaina, Marcela and Camila at Carnival
dunes - stunning.
But I digress, our first day in the park we took an all-day boat ride down the river, stopping and hiking in the dunes that come down in many places to the water’s edge through lush forest. We walked through the fine, white sand to pools of rain water big enough to bathe in. Some of the pools were crystal clear while others had vegetation growing on the bottom and fish thriving in the shallows! The pools evaporate in the dry season, but when the rains return the fish eggs laid in the sand hatch. The contrast was stunning - high sand dunes as far as the eye could see, reminiscent of Saudi Arabia or Egypt, and the refreshing pools full of sparkling water.
Our destination that day was to the mouth of the river where it meets the Atlantic. We didn’t go into the mouth because of waves. We docked on the riverside at a small community that had a restaurant and cabanas for rent. Before a lunch of fresh fish we walked the short distance to the ocean for a cool dip. Paradise.
We only had
Carnival São Luis
The King of São Luis Carnival surrounded by Marcela, Camie and various family members
two days in paradise. On the second day we took a jeep ride into the dunes, hiking in different places and bathing in more pools. There was no lack of photographic opportunity as every dune had a striking shape and every view more spectacular than the last. When the world “discovers” Barrierinhas I predict you’ll see lots of magazine photo layouts of this incredible area. But remember, you saw it here first!
We returned to *São Luis for two more days with the warm and wacky De Castro family, put Marcela on a plane to Argentina (not her original flight which had been over-booked), and then we left after tearful farewells to our Brazilian family.
*Remember I told you the country shut down for at least 10 days during Carnival? Well that meant that banks were closed and our plans for getting money thwarted. By time to return to São Luis, we had no money to pay the pilot who flew us back from Barreirinhas!! We called Camie’s dad who met us at the airport with the pilot’s payment. So, the pilot had to trust we’d pay him for services already rendered. Have I
B w/Carnival Queen & Princess
Bernard with the Queen of Carnival on the left and the Princess on the right
mentioned how wonderful and trusting the Brazilian people are?
Cuiabá and The Pantanal
Our next stop was Cuiabá in the west of Brazil near the Bolivian border for our excursion into the Pantanal wetlands.
“This is how reckless people die” I thought as I surveyed the expanse of water hyacinth our boatman had intentionally entangled us in while our skin sizzled in the brutal Brazilian sun. Thoughts of giant anaconda rumored to be 30 feet (9 meters) long flashed through my mind, and I did a quick check for any caiman eyes peering through the greenery.
It was our last day at the Sapé Lodge in the Pantanal, a vast wetlands in western Brazil where we had come for a five-day birdwatching/wetlands exploring adventure.
The Pantanal is a tropical wetlands It is one of the world's largest wetlands of any kind. Most of it lies within the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, but it extends into Mato Grosso and portions of Bolivia and Paraguay, sprawling over an area estimated at between 140,000 square kilometers (54,000 sq. mi.) and 195,00 sq. kilometers (75,000 sq. mi.). It
Parque Nacional Lençois Maranhenses
These beautiful sand dunes are dotted with lagoons
is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It turned out to be a delightful adventure, all the more so because we almost didn’t get there because it was difficult to get information on the Pantanal from the states, and even in Brazil we had trouble locating a first-class lodge; one that would accept traveler’s checks or a credit card. We didn’t want to travel with too much cash in Brazil.
Sapé Pantanal Lodge offered us everything we desired plus an English-speaking host, Richard Mason. His lovely Brazilian wife, Paula, managed the kitchen and served excellent and abundant meals. The local boat boy, Paolo, who was at our disposal all day expertly guided us through the seemingly endless channels, swamps, rivers and lakes which comprise the awesome Pantanal region.
There are over 300 species of birds in the Pantanal, but we only identified about 100 as it wasn’t the birding season. Our time there was governed by many other circumstances, so we were thrilled to see the ones we did, which included hyacinth macaws and toucans. In the dry season (July - October) the nesting and breeding season, the birds form vast nesting
Parque Nacional Lençois Maranhenses sand dunes taken from our 6-seater plane
areas with hundreds of thousands of bird crowding the trees and creating a cacophony of sounds.
It wasn’t fishing season either - the fishing was forbidden for the month of February on the Cuiabá River. Fishing is said to be fantastic in the stretch of the Cuiabá where the Sapé Lodge is located - giant catfish, piranha, and the fruit/seed eating pacu whose white, nearly boneless meat is rumored to delight the most discriminating palate. Brazilians love their seafood and prepare it lovingly.
Since we were there when the fishing was closed, we had to settle for roast beef with oven-browned potatoes, broasted chicken with orange glaze, tons of vegetables and always salad. Oh, and there were always at least three desserts. Our hosts made a great team in many ways and cuisine was one of them.
We were there in the wet season and it was a particularly wet one. The giant basin of rivers and streams was at high flood stage, and there was almost no dry land. Normally if there is some high, dry ground where the animals gather and photographers have a field day filming howler monkeys,
South American coati, river otters, ocelot, pumas, deer and caiman, to name a few. So our luck wasn’t good for animal viewing either. We did see lots of howler monkeys and heard many more. The male howler makes a sound similar to a lion’s roar, only more drawn out and for longer periods - it can go on for an hour. In the swamp we were frequently serenaded by these beautiful creatures whose faces, fittingly, are framed with a lion-like mane.
Because there was so little dry land, when we were in the wetlands in the a.m. after many cups of wonderful, strong coffee, and Bernard found the need to relieve himself, he did so over the bow of the boat. One morning we were ‘parked’ under a tree and Bernie was taking care of business when a howler monkey family came down to investigate. First buff-colored Mom with Jr. on her back dropped into a low branch just over Bernie’s head to get a closer look. The jet-black Dad had to see what the attraction was, and comment of course with some guttural howls. Unfortunately we have no pictures of this because I was helpless with
laughter and, obviously, Bernie’s hands were occupied with things other than camera equipment.
We saw capuchin monkeys and most evenings a troop of black-tailed marmoset came through the lodge area swinging from tree limb to porch, to bush, giving us excellent views.
The caiman we saw mostly in the shallow water hidden among the over-hanging greenery. There were many capybara, a species of giant aquatic guinea-pig. The capybara don’t need dry ground as they can trample downs swamp grass to sleep on. They spend a lot of time in the water eating the abundant water hyacinth.
Oh yes, water hyacinth, so pretty to look at as it appears to float freely on top of a lake, or cascades down a stream. We learned a lot about this aquatic plant. For instance, its root system only goes down a foot or two in the water, but is totally intertwined, so an acre of plants is like one large plant. If you try to move one section, you are essentially moving it all. And there are so many kinds of bugs that make their home on or among the hyacinth. Another thing we
learned was you cannot motor through a large patch. Paolo, our boatman, had earlier successfully bush-busted through some small patches. His method was to survey the area on a slow recon, back up, rev the motor and then speed through the obstacle.
That last day on the lake I had asked to return to the lodge a bit early as the sun was so intense. I had sun block on, but my skin felt scorched even at 10:00 - we’d been out since 7:00. We were on a lake which had acres of water hyacinth and other grasses in it. Paolo surveyed an area of approximately 80 feet (24 meters) of solid water hyacinth. We could see a clear channel on the other side. thinking there was no way Paulo would be fool enough to attempt crossing such a vast expanse, we relaxed as he turned the boat around and headed away. He steadily increased his speed, then turned sharply and sped hell-bent into the hyacinths. We had no time to protest, only to grab the side of the boat as we plowed two boat lengths (30 ft./9 mts.) into the floating trap and lurched to a
B w/Pacu in Pantanal
This is a relative to the pirana, so has teeth, but eat only fruits and seeds. I know, we weren't "supposed" to fish, shhhh
With the breeze created by the movement of the boat gone, the sun felt like a fire blanket settling on our skin - every exposed nerve singed. In the stunned silence that followed, the thousand of insects and animals we’d disturbed buzzed, chirped and croaked; jumped, hopped and flew wildly seeking safety.
For five minutes or so Paolo tried to power through the plants. We got nowhere, only an entangled propeller shaft. Looking behind us you could barely see where we’d entered as the water hyacinth had closed in around us. Paolo tried to cut through the plants using the motor blades. All this accomplished was fouled blades and a minimum of area cleared. Next we tried to move the plants around us by hand - futile as the entire mass with its heavy roots and bulb-like growths moved together. The smell of rotting vegetation caught in the roots was particularly disgusting. Bernie found a large bait cutting knife in the tackle box and he and Paolo worked cutting the plants, which I then pulled to the side. That worked, but was incredibly slow. Paulo then put his only paddle on top
K w/fish in Pantanal
Shhh, I caught a fish too, but cannot remember the kind. We ate Bernie's pacu, but not this one
of the plants, stood on the paddle and slowly submerged some plants. We rocked the boat backwards while Paulo pulled on the stern from the water (still standing on his submerged paddle). Then Bernie and I pulled on the plants on the side of the boat. Mostly they came up and gave us no purchase, but occasionally they would hold and we’d inch the boat backwards over the plants. This was working, but slowly, so Paulo finally got among the plants and using his hands, arms and body to push and separate the plants, created a channel. Bernie used the paddle as a pole and pushed us backwards while I hauled on the plants to the side of the boat. In this way, after and hour, we backed into the lake.
Hot, thirsty, bug-bite and scorched, but relieved, we could afford to laugh at the situation and pat ourselves on the back for having extricated ourselves. With big sighs we settled into our seats while Paolo turned the boat around and headed across the lake. To our horror, it was a replay of an hour before: Paulo sped up, turned sharply and headed full bore at the
Map of Brazil - Click to Enlarge
Started in Ouro Preto near Rio De Janerio in the southeast, then to São Luis in the far northeast, then to the Pantanal on the extreme west of the country near the border w/Bolivia, then down to Iguazu Falls on the Argentina/Brazil border
floating trap, AGAIN! We were stunned, but I could only hold on and mouth “NOOOOO” before we hit the patch again, but this time a few yards to the right. Those few yards made all the difference because it was grass and not water hyacinth. If motored through slowly and steadily, a boat can easily go through this grass. We had to stop several times to clear the propeller shaft, and each time we did my heart leapt into my throat - I had visions of a slow death by dehydration and exposure. It took only about five minutes to go through the swamp grass and reach the channel beyond, but I held my breath the whole time.
Once we were in the channel and got up speed, we were back at the lodge in ten minutes. A few hours later we were back in the boat headed to the small town of Pocone and the beginning of the two hour road trip back to Cuiabã and a flight to, eventually, Argentina.
Our next stop was Iguazu Fall
s (Cataratas del Iguazú/Foz do Iguaçu) on the Argentine/Brazil border. On our first visit to
Iguazu in 1989 we stayed on the Brazilian side, this time we stayed on the Argentine side. Very different views from the different sides - all fantastic.
The falls are overwhelming. The water falls thunderously in virgin forest bright with orchids and serpentine creepers festooning the tree branches. Above the impact of water-on-rock hovers a perpetual 90-foot (27-meter) high cloud of mist in which the sun creates rainbows. There are so many cascades, unlike single Niagara, Iguazu has 275 falls spread over a two-mile area. Hundreds of thousands of butterflies give the area a fairy-tale effect.
From Iguazu we took a bus to Salta
in the north of Argentina. There we rented a car and spent a week exploring the canyon country - picture Arizona and you have it exactly. They even have a cactus, the cardón, that looks almost exactly like a saguaro. We felt very much at home.
From the town of San Miguel de Tucumán
just south of Salta we flew to Mendoza
where we were meeting the Sahade family for a wedding. Vicky and Marcela’s mom, Rosa, was originally from the vineyard town of Mendoza. Rosa’s family
K @Iguazu Falls
Our first visit to Iguazu in 1989 we took a helicopter ride over the falls - breathtaking!!
was early into the winery business and became quite wealthy. Due to many circumstances and bad luck, eventually the vineyards were sold off. Rosa’s brother’s family still lives in the family mansion across from a beautiful park near the center of town, but it will likely be sold soon too. Rosa has fond memories of growing up in Mendoza, and her children remember great times visiting the winery and vineyards throughout their lives.
Mendoza is a truly beautiful city of 750,000 people. It has tree-canopied streets and incredible parks. Because it is a wine town, huge old wine casks have been planted with flowers and decorate most streets. The huge trees shade the streets and keep it cool - a very, very livable city.
It was wonderful to be reunited with the Sahades at a family wedding - spirits were high and everyone looked beautiful. We were included as family members in all the activities. The final event - the wedding reception, was held at an old vineyard outside town. The setting was perfect and the sit-down dinner delicious. The music began around 1 a.m. But backing up a bit, the church ceremony had
Blue Morpho Butterfly, Iguazu
The butterflies at Iguazu were just enchanting - so many everywhere and many like this morpho that were iridescent
started at 9:30 p.m., we then drove to the vineyard and appetizers were served about 11 p.m., and dinner approximately midnight. So the non-stop dancing continued until about 7 a.m. Bernie and I got a lift back to town with Andrea (Vicky & Marcela’s older sister) and her boyfriend Carlos (who later became her husband; they have 3 children) - party poopers all because it was only 5 a.m.
Now I have to mention that these late hours are perfectly normal in Argentina. On a regular night dinner is between 10 p.m. and midnight. On a weeknight people then go right to bed because they have to get up at a normal time as most businesses open at 8 a.m. On the weekend young people go dancing after dinner - clubs start the music around midnight - 1 a.m. If possible, siestas are taken after the noon meal. It is normal then to have a snack around 5 p.m. so you don’t starve by dinner time at 10 p.m. You’d think Argentines would be heavy with so many meals and eating so late, but you’d be wring. They are mostly trim and you see few obese people,
Sahade Family @Wedding In Mendoza
Marcela, Carolina (Sebastian's girlfriend), Rosa (mother), Pablo (brother), Sebastian (brother), Victoria, Carlos (Andrea's boyfriend), Andrea (sister)
very unlike the states.
After the wedding Vicky stayed with us and we used her car to drive north of Mendoza to an area around San Juan
. Vicky’s former boyfriend (Swiss), Rafael, lives there and was recently married. We had dinner with some of their mutual friends and met Rafael’s new wife, Maria José. It was a bit awkward at first between Maria José and Vicky, but they are both strong women, so it actually turned into a fun night. We liked her. Bernie and I never met Rafael when he was dating Vicky, but we’d heard a lot, so were glad to finally meet him. What a nice person - we could see why Vicky was once enamored with him. Rafael is in the adventure tourism business, so he gave us tips on what to see in the area.
The highlight for us was in the tiny town of Barreal at Posada San Eduardo,
which Rafael had recommended and gotten us a discount for. The quaint old inn was manned by Gustavo - receptionist, waiter, tour guide and cowboy. Upon arrival he asked us if we wanted lunch, and upon our enthusiastic affirmation,
San Marten Park, Mendoza
Marcela & Vicky's mother's, Rosa's, family home is just out of sight on the left of this photo; had beautiful views of the park
showed us to our rooms (15 ft. ceilings, antique furniture, and fresh herb wreaths on the walls filling the room with the essence of heather and lavender) to freshen up. Gustavo then led us to a beautiful garden near the pool where he had set up our table under a tree - linen tablecloth and napkins, fresh-flower centerpiece and a separate table with a tasteful wine display. All just for us as there were no other guests in this out-of-the-way gem of a village. Gustavo had been superbly trained. The wine was poured slowly and not a drop spilled. The food was arranged beautifully and served with flare. Our wine and water glasses were never empty.
Dinner was a replay of lunch, only this time in the candle-lit dining room. And I mean totally candle lit. The courtyard was ringed in candles, and the dinning room’s chandeliers were all candles - new ones every night we were told.
The drawback to being in this romantic setting was that there were THREE of us. I’m sure Vicky wished her roommates had been different also.
The next morning we went on a horse
Cece, Marela, B & Vic @BA Airport
Cecilia, aka Cece, is Vic & Marcla's cousin and best friend. We stayed with her in Buenos Aires
ride into the rocky (think Arizona again) hills. It was scary at first because we went straight up and then straight down steep inclines of loose rock. When on a ridge it was so thin I think the horses were scared too.
Too soon we had to set our sails for Córdoba to rejoin the rest of the Sahade family in their hometown. Marcela had been with us in Brazil, so couldn’t take off more time from work. We wanted to spend out last week in Argentina with everyone in Córdoba.
It was a great week. Rosa is a fabulous cook - nobody beats her Arab dishes. But the youngest Sahade, Sebastian, is a chef in his own right. He spent a summer in Spain studying and cooking with a famous chef, in addition to his other culinary studies. Seba fixed us some outrageous meals, paella, pastas to-die-for to name only a few. It was a great week.
We were flying out of Buenos Aires
, so Vicky and Marcela few with us to “the big apple” (according to Madonna anyway). We stayed at their cousin Cecila’s
house. What a great hostess
Marcela & Vic @Beach
We spend a lovely day at the beach at a local river in Córdoba
Cece was. She drove us all over BA. It was Easter weekend and traffic was light, so we got to see all the sights in a leisurely manner. Another cousin visited us, still another cousin came to dinner along with a friend. It is amazing - all of these talented people speak incredibly great English.
It was sad to say goodbye to our Argentine daughters, just as it was hard to part from Camila in Brazil. But I know in my heart that we’ll see them again soon. I just need to start working on Bernard about a reunion. How does Miami sound?
Note: We did indeed finally have a reunion in Miama in 2007 (had several before that too): http://www.travelblog.org/fred.php?id=163298
- Exchange Daughter Reunion 2007
We flew from Buenos Aires to Guayaquil, Ecuador
to pick up the things we’d left in our old apartment.
Just before we’d left Ecuador at the end of January we’d had a leak in the guest bathroom. We’d told our Señora about it and she said she’d get someone to fix it, but she went to Miami (has a home there) without
Both Córdoba and particularly Mendoza have many beautiful parks
arranging the repair. So we put our two bags, one box of books and the computer high on shelves in the bedroom - in case the leak got worse.
Well, thank our lucky stars (or more accurately Bernard’s foresight) because while we were gone the rains began. One day they had eight inches in four hours. Our apartment was right on an estuary which rose and flooded - 3 feet of water in our apartment.
When we returned to collect our things only one maid was there (everyone else was in Miami) and only she (and nine dogs) had been present when the flooding occurred. She had tried to save some things in the apartment, but most of the furniture and carpets got wet. It smelled funky. But our things were high and dry!! We collected them and went to a 5-star hotel - our last days in Ecuador were going to be pleasant. BE SURE TO GO TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE FOR A FEW MORE PHOTOS
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