Welcome to the podcast show notes and transcript for Episode 7: All You Need To Know About Cargo Ship Travel. In this episode Rachel Heller and I speak with travel blogger and travel guide book author, Rebecca Hall, who writes at Life Beyond Borders Blog. She has spent many years living in Greece and written a fictionalised account of life in a small Greek town. In addition, she has done several trips as a passenger on a container ship. If you are happy in your own company for an extended period of time, cargo ship travel may offer an affordable way to travel the world. Listen and decide for yourself.

All You Need To Know About Cargo Ship Travel

All you need to know about passenger travel on a cargo ship

Time Stamped Show Notes

0:33 Stepping Out Of Your Comfort Zone

3:44 Feeling More Greek Than British

6:47 The Tip on Tipping

9:04 One Hand Gesture You Should Never Make

11:00 Girl Gone Greek

13:35 Cargo Ship Travel

15:15 Life As A Container Ship Passenger

17:26 Pirates Aaaargh!

18:26 Karaoke Nights

20:03 Amenities On Board

23:47 Tips for First Time Cargo Travel Passengers

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——-> Episode 7 of the 1001 Travel Tips Podcast <——-

It might seem insignificant, but it helps more than you might think.

All You Need To Know About Cargo Ship Travel

Tips on travelling as a passenger on a cargo ship.

Transcript

This is a transcript of 1001 Travel Tales Podcast: Episode 7: All You Need To Know About Cargo Ship Travel. The text has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

A conversation with Shobha George (Just Go Places Blog), Rachel Heller (Rachel’s Ruminations) and Rebecca Hall (Life Beyond Borders Blog).

Rachel:  We are talking today with Rebecca Hall of Lifebeyondbordersblog.com and welcome Rebecca.

Rebecca:  Thank you for having me.

Stepping Out Of Your Comfort Zone

Shobha:  So Rebecca has a cool bio where she gets to live in Greece half of the year. She also spends part of her time in her native UK and then travels around different islands in Greece. It seems somewhat ideal.  How did you get involved in that?

Rebecca:  Okay so basically to put the record straight, I spend part of the year in Greece, part of the year in the UK and the rest of the time travelling for writing for my travel blog. Whether that’s within Greece or within my own country of the UK or within Europe or occasionally worldwide that’s what I get to do.

I have many different hats. I started off as a teacher in Greece, teaching English as a foreign language. I taught that since 2008.  I originally was just gonna stay for a year. I taught in a small village in the middle of nowhere in the mainland and I started to really like it.

I was just gonna spend a year and go maybe further afield like Vietnam or Cambodia. But I started to like Greece so I thought I would try a second year in Athens. I did that and then Greece was starting to get into my blood. I started to think I’m  feeling more Greek from British so then I stayed a third year teaching in Athens. Like I said just got sucked in within a positive way.

After about my 6th year of teaching within that period of time, I had started writing a blog because I was fed up sending my dad emails just letting him know how I was because he wasn’t on Facebook. I was just telling him about the culture in Greece and the places I travelled to that weren’t very well known tourist places. Then about 2012 I started to get some emails particularly from the American market because Greece was hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons. They were saying is it safe for me to come on holiday? I was thinking why am I getting these emails? What are they being fed internationally by the media?

Then I started to realize that it’s not just my dad that’s reading my blog. I changed the name, changed the domain and I made it into a much more professional look. So this is what you have –  lifebeyondbordersblog.com. Since then it’s really taken off organically on its’ own I have people still emailing me, predominantly my readership from the States because I do write about alternative things to see in Greece.

I do go abroad for the travel guide book company Rough Guides which is my other hat I wear.  I’m a travel guide book writer. For example the Rough Guides Portugal I updated this year. I went to very, very unknown places in Portugal, Porto in the North, the Minho region which is in the far north and the Douro Valley which is probably better known.

Predominantly my writing on my site is about places to see within a country. But places you might not have heard of and places that you might not think to go and visit. I  also let people know and to take you out of your comfort zone. It’s okay to visit a country on your own. It’s okay you don’t have to just go on a cruise and feel like you need to be led around and have your hand held. It’s great for some people but maybe just try and come out of your comfort zone a little bit more. That’s me in a nutshell really.

Feeling More Greek Than British

Rachel:  You know I’m not gonna let you off the hook on something you said before about how you feel more Greek than British. I wonder about that as an ex-pat myself. What do you mean by more Greek than British?

All You Need To Know About Cargo Ship Travel

Greek island life (Photo credit: Rebecca Hall)

Rebecca:  First of all weather. I feel weather really affects how people live their lives, how people feel psychologically as well. It affects how you feel on a day to day basis. You getting up when it’s constantly raining or you getting up when the weather is so miserable. When it’s dark, this really affects your psyche. It affects how you live your life.

Therefore a lot of the culture in the UK is to have an indoor culture. The British people whilst they are very efficient and very kind, I find it as a culture compared to Greece very difficult to make friends in the UK. It’s quite closed. It takes a longer time, for example, doesn’t mean that they aren’t friendly.

Also the culture in the UK is more of an alcohol culture. It’s centred around the pub.  I’ve never been one whose really been into that even when I was a teenager. That was always a little bit difficult for me because people always tend to give you a bit of hard time.  What do you mean you don’t want a drink? What do you mean you only want one glass of wine? You go to the Mediterranean culture, particular Greece.

They are quite happy at 11 o’clock at night for you to be sitting there drinking coffee. They are not going to look at you and give you a hard time that you want [only] 1 glass of wine. That’s fine.  In fact, you drink wine or you drink beer and you automatically have mezze. Mezze are little bits of food or just nuts or crisps there for you to eat. They never serve alcohol on its’ own.

That is not the mentality on a Wednesday [in the UK].  You make a plan to go out at the weekend to get drunk. Now I’m not saying everybody does that but it is more prevalent I think in Northern cultures and I find in the UK.

It was the southern culture of also being inclusive. When you go out sometimes, you find whole families going to the village square. In different pockets or different neighbourhoods in Athens, in the squares there, you have mothers, fathers, kids as young as 4 running around at midnight.

Shobha:  That’s one of the things as a family traveller that I really appreciate about the Mediterranean culture. We’ll just take our children with us and sometimes they slept in the stroller. Now you know they can hang out but since no one is getting completely hammered or being ridiculous it felt safe. It felt fine.

Rebecca:  Exactly.

Shobha:  Other people had their children too. There was just a general good time.

Rebecca:  There is not that differentiation. They don’t say young people have to go to this club. Older people go to that park. Everybody is there together and everybody is mixing well. Like I said you get 4 year olds till midnight, 1 o’clock in the morning and people are not criticized for that.

Shobha:  And at the same time you are not getting the waiter at the restaurant angry at you because your kids are running around.

Rebecca:  You can go for one coffee also in a coffee shop. You can sit there for 3 hours and just order one coffee. You are not being looked at to that you either go or order one more coffee. The waiters just love the kids there too.

The Tip on Tipping

Shobha:  In the US a lot of that is related to the tip culture. You just sitting there wasting their time. Then they are not going to get much of a tip after your one coffee three hours later.

Rebecca:  In fact in Greece if you start trying to tip, some people get offended by tipping sometimes. (I mean the people receiving the tip.) Sometimes they look at you and think who the hell do you think we are? We are giving you the service because this is our job to give you this service. This is our pleasure to give you this service. Even if they are not receiving a high wage.

I get American friends who I have made who come to Greece and they say how much do I tip and I say you don’t have to. It really blows their mind.

For me it’s really difficult when I visit the States.  I love the States. I’ve been to Seattle and I absolutely love the West Coast. It was very difficult for me having to work out at the end of the night. This service I’m receiving is really only because this person thinks they are gonna get a good tip at the end of it. I would much rather have a genuine quality service than thinking okay I’m gonna serve this person well because I need the money.  That to me is a really sad, sad thing.

I also want to say about how much weather makes a difference to people’s psyche. When you have sunshine, you might be going through a difficult time, let’s face it like the Greeks are.  It’s not something you can avoid speaking about because they are. However, it doesn’t stop them being human. There is something about people when they have money and the more money you have to me it’s strange, the less human people seem to be.  Human in the sense the less giving.

For example, my next door neighbours when I do visit Greece and spend time there. They don’t have a lot of money. They have had their pensions cut. Yet she is always cooking meals for me, always coming around with food.  There is a Greek expression that literally translates as “you are in your head”. So she thinks because I’m a writer, I’m in my head and I might forget to look after myself. Therefore she’s going to look after me. I made the mistake once (very British of me) of offering to pay her after she had done this the 5th time. She honestly looked like I had slapped her in the face.

One Hand Gesture You Should Never Make

Rachel:  This was one of the things we were going to ask you. There is one of your culture faux pas. Do you have another one?

Rebecca:  Yes in Greece, I was teaching numbers to the children. So try and imagine this. With my palm facing out I’m counting 1, 2, 3, 4. When I get to the number 5 I’m leaving my palm counting out and I’m gently pushing my hand.  So number 1 push, number 2 push, number 3 push then I get to 5 and push it. All the Greek children ahhhh Miss … stop. I’m saying what’s wrong?  It’s a very, very bad expression in Greece. You are basically saying that you are rubbing something very nasty in somebody’s face.

Rachel:  Your open hand facing outwards and thrusting it forwards? In Greece, don’t do that.

Rebecca:  Yes that’s right never ever do that. In fact one of my Rough Guide colleagues, he lived in Greece for a while. He speaks fluent Greek. He was travelling and he was hitch hiking. This is back in the 90’s. You can still hitch hike in Greece quite safely actually.

Anyway, he is hitch hiking and this van didn’t stop. So he just turned around and automatically just as the van drove did this palm out expression. The man must have seen him in the rear mirror, stopped, jumped out and doshed him one on the face.

My friend started yabbering in Greek at him. What the hell did you do that for? Complete Greek about turn, so typically Greek and so funny.  The Greek man says, oh you speak Greek. Oh I’m very sorry and pulled him back up, dusted him down and said I’m ever so sorry. Where would you like to go, come on, sit in the van, come to my house.

The longer I’ve been in Greece and the longer I stay in Greece and the longer I experience Greeks, it just doesn’t surprise me.

Shobha:  How long have you been in Greece?

Rebecca:  6 years teaching and and now 8 years but on and off teaching and as a travel writer.

All You Need To Know About Cargo Ship Travel

Sunset at the container ship port in Piraeus Greece (Photo credit: Rebecca Hall)

Girl Gone Greek

Rachel:  Okay now you also have written a book? It’s called Girl Gone Greek. Tell us how that happened.

Rebecca:  Back in 2010, I was writing my blog. I thought that I want to try and chronicle my experiences.

The actual impetus for writing that book was because I was fed up with what I was reading about Greece in the international headlines. I thought, I am no political writer, I can’t write for the New York Times, I can’t write for the Seattle Post, Washington Post, Guardian, Telegraph.  I’m not an economist. I’m not that type of writer but I do have a love for Greece.

I do have different experiences of the culture. I want to reach an audience and show them what the real Greece is like.  I like to think that I have a sense of humour. I basically sat down and wrote a semi-autobiographical, fictionalised account of my time in Greece. I thought this would probable reach a wider audience because it’s more high brow people that read the newspapers. This is going to reach a whole spectrum of people and it did.

I wrote about this character’s experiences of teaching in school, living in the street village where nobody spoke English and talking about her experiences there. I wrote about the people she met, about how they talk to her, how they accepted her, how some people were a bit wary of her. Basically trying to show the people buying my book that you know Greece is not what you are reading in the headlines. This is what you will see if you go to a remote area of Greece.

So, it’s not just about it aesthetic beauty. It’s also the beauty of the people and the beauty of the culture. I try to do it in a subtle way through writing about honest experiences. It seems to have worked so far, 2015 in June it was published.

Rachel:  Wow, are you writing another?

Rebecca:  I had a message to put across. I had so much energy invested in that book.  I kinda drained myself  now. A lot of people have written to me on Amazon reviews and sent me personal emails. They have said to me are you writing another one?  When is the next one coming out? I’m starting to feel the pressure now.

I don’t think this is the time for me to be writing a second one if I am going to be writing one just for the sake of pleasing people and getting a second one out. I need to write where I’ve got a passion for it. I might be a one book wonder, I don’t know there might be a second one but I’m not gonna push myself for it.  It has to be quality over quantity, I don’t wanna be a sausage machine.

Cargo Ship Travel

Shobha:  On your blog you wright about interesting places to go that are off the beaten path, would you like to share a couple of your favourite ones with us?

Rebecca:  Oh my favourite one, and followers of my blog would know this, this is random and you will probably sit back and look a bit surprised at me –  my container ship trip from Athens to Hong Kong. I was a passenger on board a container ship.

Rachel:  I read that series, it’s really interesting.

Shobha:  It would be the sailors who work on the ship and containers.

Rebecca:  You have about 6 passengers’ cabins but they are not even considered passenger cabins. They are cabins that are not being used by senior members of the crew. They no longer have persons as pursers on board these ships so these cabins are empty for example.

I travelled from Athens to Hong Kong by container ship.  Now I knew about this because my dad used to be at sea for the Merchant Navy. I do have to stress that it’s not Royal Navy. It’s Merchant Navy container ships.  My dad was at sea in 1950’s. He told me even back then they were taking passengers.  He said they used to take nuns who were travelling between the African coast.

He knows I like alternative methods of travel. He said why don’t you try if you want to do a trip, look into that.  He’s old now so his expression was use the internet thingy that you are always using.

I said okay dad. I looked up on the internet. In fact I Googled it and I found an agent based in London and Toronto. They do book it. They are a specialists in it. They book all sorts of trips worldwide. They do cruises. They they do alternative maybe like ice breaker trips in the Arctic. They also do container ships.

Life As A Container Ship Passenger

Shobha:  So on a container ship yeah, what was the accommodation like? Was it basic and then you eat with the staff?

All You Need To Know About Cargo Ship Travel

The rear of the ship being loaded. (Photo credit: Rebecca Hall)

Rebecca:  Basically I was one of the member of crew. So I had one of the more senior cabins. It was about 35 sq metres [115 square feet]/

Rachel:  That’s big for a cabin. You wouldn’t get that big on a cruise ship.

Rebecca:  Exactly and this is again me dispelling more myths. It’s actually 4 huge port holes, big double bed and a small lounge with TV which obviously didn’t work. I don’t know why the TV was in there, maybe in port it works.

Yes, okay en suite bathroom and basically yes, 3 meals a day. I would dine with the senior crew. It was so funny, whenever I came into dine with the Captain, the Chief Officer, the Chief Engineer and the second Engineer, if they were already sitting down and eating they would all stop eating and stand up.  On my ship the Captain was Swiss, the Chief Officer was Polish, the Chief Engineer was German and the Second Engineer was Polish.

In fact by about the 3rd day I said guys you don’t have to keep doing this. I’m on this trip for 27 days with you, I think you can’t do this every time for 3 meals a day please.  And they said okay you’re becoming one of us now. We’re accepting you a bit more as kind of one of one of us so that’s fine.

Shobha:  And then were there other passengers?

Rebecca:  On that particular trip I was actually the only one.

Rachel:  What did you do with your time?

Rebecca:  People think, oh my God because you don’t have internet. There is some connection for emails but not internet because it’s extortionately expensive at sea.  Download a load of books from Kindle before you go. If you go to a Port and manage to get internet access when you go into town, just get Kindle books. That’s why I have a Kindle, it’s great for travelling.  At that time when I went on the voyage I was still writing my book so I had the perfect time to actually try and edit it and finish it.

Shobha George:  You know that just sounds idyllic in some ways. Almost a month without real contact and people pestering you. You can’t waste your time on the internet. You have to get down and do some work, and you have time to think and reflect and edit.

Pirates Aaaargh!

Rebecca:  You have to be comfortable with your own company as well.  Going up onto the bridge was one of the nicest experiences.  Going up to the bridge as you go through the Suez Canal coming out to the Red Sea was  probably the scariest incident we had. It wasn’t even an incidence, it was just normal part of the trip. For 10 days after we exited the Red Sea, we came into the Arabian Gulf. We had to have Security Guards on board for 10 days because we were around the Arabian Gulf area.

All You Need To Know About Cargo Ship Travel

Passing through the Suez Canal on a Cargo Ship (Photo credit: Rebecca Hall)

Shobha:  Yes that was the Somalian pirate area.

Rebecca:  Yes, so we had 1 gentleman from South Africa and 2 from the UK. I’m not allowed to name names. Let’s just call them Huey, Dewey and Louie. I used to call them that on the ship. I knew them and they just laughed.

I say I’m gonna refer to you as those three very, very, very well trained individuals. Very well integrated into the ship’s life, you wouldn’t even know they were there. Basically the ship slows down and you have a small speed boat. Huey, Dewey and Louie come on. Then they exit when they needed to exit.

Karaoke Nights

Rachel:  Yes, yes now I understand that you were writing and you were reading and that was enough. Were there any facilities? Is there a lounge chair you can lay on outside? I would wanna be able to at least get some outdoor air.

Rebecca:  Well you have a lounge chair you could take onto your area where you are based on the ship. It wasn’t like a balcony but I had like an area where I could put my lounge chair and sit outside.

I like people and I like finding out people’s stories. They’re never all on duty at the same time, I appreciate that they gotta rest.

I just wanted to get to know the crew. The rest of the crew were Filipino and they were really quite shy at first. Once they got used to me, they called me their sister in the end. I was invited into their mess areas, because they are called mess areas.  They would have karaoke almost every night, Filipinos love karaoke I think.

Shobha:  Did you join in?

Rebecca:  Yes, they got me joining in.

Shobha:  Tell us your favourite song then.

Rebecca:  Oh no they chose it for me I think it was Bonnie Tyler, what did she sing? Total eclipse of something.

Shobha:  You had to belt out Total Eclipse of the Heart?

Rebecca:  They were insisting that. They were all Bon Jovi, Def Leppard kind of fans but they wanted me doing Bonnie Tyler.  Then there was someone that played the guitar. The Captain was exceedingly good. He arranged a bar-b-que one night.

You know I think who has the hardest job on a ship is the cook. I think he has to cater 3 meals a day. The first up in the morning, the last in bed at nights and you can’t be sick.

Amenities On Board

Shobha:  How was the food?

Rebecca:   Fantastic. We would have say sometimes calamari. Oh we had pork roast. We had beef roast. We had lots of different rice salads for our barbecue.

Yeah the food is much better than a lot of people think and like the average food that you would get on a cruise ship. I think  if you don’t want the entertainment of sitting down and watching dancers, I would choose a container ship to be honest.

And also, they have swimming pool on board. It’s not a huge swimming pool. It’s like an exercise pool. It depends on the ship whether it’s outside or indoors. Mine was indoors. Because I’m very mindful of the crew and I was the only female on board, I used to wait for a time when it was empty. Then I would go on board and just swim.

Rachel:  Is it fresh water?

Rebecca:  Tap water and it’s only filled up when you are at sea.

Shobha:  I don’t know anyone else who has ever been on a container ship.

Rebecca:  NPR [National Public Radio in the USA] when they interviewed me said the same. hat’s why they wanted they interview.

Yeah, I would recommend you should look into doing this kind of a tour.

Rachel:  It sounds very tempting to me.

Shobha:   I have never been on a regular cruise just precisely because I hate people trying to force me to be happy. Not that I am a grumpy kind of person but I wouldn’t like endless buffets and being happy and cheery and enjoying entertainment.

Rebecca:  And you do have to sit with a stranger for dinner.

Rachel:  Here is what worries me about a regular cruise and about the one you are describing. The regular cruise, yeah you are gonna end up perhaps with people you don’t want at the same table with you.

They might be people you don’t like. But the same thing could happen in one of these ships, couldn’t it? I mean any number of things could happen. I mean there are persons that you just don’t click with.

Rebecca:  That’s where the sociology of the whole aspect comes in. It’s very interesting. My father taught me a lesson. He says from a passenger aspect I don’t think it affects you too much because you know you are getting off.

Also it’s all new, brand new and interesting for you. It’s very rare that might find someone you don’t like.

I think that applies more to these people who work in this industry all they time. My dad said to me, you know what Rebecca, I learn very quickly when you are on one of these ships you can’t not get on with people.  You could be on for a hundred days with these people. He said it teaches you to get on with people – not from a passenger aspect but from a working aspect.

So it teaches you a lot about yourself.

Shobha:  My son had recently had a boy’s scout event and he met an Admiral. The Admiral had this really fun fact that apparently 90% of the world’s trade is done by sea. So there’s is a lot of these container ships with empty rooms.

Rebecca:  That’s a lot of these ships out there. In terms of also crew and cargo, there are a lot of people who have done this and this is their career. They learn to get along with each other. From a sociological aspect it’s very interesting.

Rachel:  So if somebody had outrageous behaviour of some sort, it would have been toned down, if they were a person who works on a ship anyway.

Rebecca:  Well I guess, I think you have to be a certain type of person. You can’t work in that kind of environment and not know how to get on with people really.

Shobha:  So have you done one of these container ship cruises again?

Rebecca:  I did on in 2010 across to the Caribbean and back again. Then this one was in 2013 the latest one that I was just talking to you about.

Shobha:  To Hong Kong.

Rebecca: Yes, and then I flew back from Hong Kong to the UK. I would choose to do it again but I wouldn’t do that route. Maybe I would fly this time to Hong Kong and then go down to Australia.

All You Need To Know About Cargo Ship Travel

Sunset in Valencia port (Photo credit: Rebecca Hall)

Tips for First Time Cargo Travel Passengers

Shobha:  For a newbie trying it for the first time do you have any tips? how to pick the right cargo cruise?

Rebecca:  I would think don’t do so many days off, in one go and see what route you want to do because you gotta understand with these ships it’s not necessarily about the destination it’s the journey.

Rachel:  No I didn’t get that, not do so many days in one go do you mean one go where you are not stopping at a port or do you mean one go in terms of don’t take such a long voyage.

Rebecca:  The whole voyage for me it would be the latter from what you just described because the whole voyage for me was 37 days.

For a newbie they might find that very, very difficult there are much shorter ones you can do which you can talk to the agent about.  I am very good with my own company. I’m happy to do that and I had specific things to do. There are some people where it would just drive them nuts. If there is a container ship that stops in port and can collect you and then drop you off at the next one that’s great.

There are some container ships that don’t actually dock in a port.  For example in a place called Turbo, T-U-R-B-O which is based in Colombia, it’s too dangerous for the ships to actually dock by the harbour. They are actually still at sea and it’s pontoons that come back and forth. If you wanted to exit the ship or join the ship in Turbo you couldn’t.

So there are specific places that you can’t join and can’t disembark. But there are others so you have to like look at your route.

Rachel:  And when they stop at ports you can get off and go explore a bit.

Rebecca:  Well this what’s even better about a container ship I think than a cruise because I believe on cruises, they only have a certain amount of time don’t they?

Rachel:  It’s usually a day. Usually they arrive in the morning and they leave in the evening.

Rebecca:  Some cruise I think even have less like 2 or 3 hours, like some of the Mediterranean cruises.

Shobha:  It would never be crowded too at the same spot at the same time like a huge [cruise] ship with 3000 people in the local town at the same day at the same time.

All You Need To Know About Cargo Ship Travel

Rejoining the cargo ship at Genoa port (Photo credit: Rebecca Hall)

Rebecca:  Well on a container ship usually about 12 hours. It depends on how much cargo they’ve got to off load and on load. It depends on their schedule and how behind they might be.

For example I was hoping to have an afternoon and evening and then leave in the morning from Barcelona. However, because we were behind we didn’t get into Barcelona until the evening.  They worked like mad so we could leave in the morning. I didn’t even have time to go shop. But it meant that in Valencia I had a lot more time.

You have to be flexible because they are not there primarily to cater to your needs. You need to remember that though. That’s why when I joined I kept a very back seat and let them approach me.

And it’s nice for them to have someone new on board because they must see the same people all the time. In fact when I left the Polish Chief Officer said to me I want to thank you for being on board . I’m not saying this to be creepy he said, even if it’s the Captain’s wife or the Chief Officer’s girlfriend. He said basically a female presence changes the dynamics on a ship. He said it changes it for the better. He said we become better men by having a female on board.

And honestly, I was near to tears I had to hide my face because I was gonna blow. I had spent so long of these people they had become like family 27 crew, 37 days.

Shobha:  That is fascinating something I’ve actually never considered but that sounds so cool.

Rebecca:  I want to thank you for following my site because it means at least I’ve got one regular reader, so that’s really.

Rachel:  Why don’t you go and look at these blogs I’ll read the address again it’s lifebeyondboardersblog.com and it’s all one word connected together thank you very much for a speaking to us.

Rebecca:  Thank you for having me.

{End of Transcript}

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