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On Becoming a Surfer (and a Writer)

It’s 31 degrees, there is snow on the ground, and I sit in my house in my hooded sweatshirt and fuzzy slippers, listening to my old dog snoring, reading my first published piece on the front page of The Inertia.

A few weeks ago, after submitting a sample, I got a notice that I was accepted as a contributor to this great website. By pure fate of all of our names starting with “K”, I happen to be on the same page and RIGHT ABOVE Keala Kennelly and Kelly Slater, among many other incredibly talented contributors. That’s right. While I will never surf monster Teahupoo like Keala or win 11 World Titles like Kelly, I like to think we are all amigos, if only in cyberspace.

By consequence of being so excited, I can barely write, so it’s best to check out it out by following the link:

http://www.theinertia.com/surf/on-becoming-a-surfer/

Or read below:

One of my very dear friends told me that for much of her life, the image that would come up when she thought of her future was eight neatly stacked, square, white, modern dinner plates. These plates somehow represented her success in life after completing college, sucking it up as an intern, then working her butt off in corporate America. They were the pinnacles of achievement, those plates, but she couldn’t care less about those plates now.

My snapshot of the future, for as long as I can remember, is an outdoor shower, and I have no idea where this came from. I grew up in a pretty average family in inland Southern California. I was an only child, with two professional working parents, good grades, off to college at age 17. My outdoor shower is a pretty functional looking shower, in a tropical setting, with a tile floor, and a bamboo screen surrounded by thick foliage. If I look closely, I see a surfboard leaning up against the wall. It turns out the shower is a side note; my dream was to be a surfer.

So, five years ago at age 34, I embarked on what I now know is the hardest learning curve in the world – surfing. I’m athletic and stubborn, two good things to have in the water, but while I was full of gumption and spunk, I thought I failed a lot. I didn’t catch enough waves, I couldn’t get my feet in the right place, I went over the falls (still do), and mostly, I deferred. I thought that because many times I was “the worst surfer in the water”, that I didn’t deserve waves, so I pulled back. I let others take waves because I thought they were better than me. Until one day, an acquaintance of mine paddled up to me, got in my face and yelled at me for being stupid, saying “You deserve waves as much as anyone else out here!”

I cried that day.

So, what did I do? After much saving and planning that involved quitting our comfortably secure jobs, I went, with my very supportive surfing husband, on a year-long world surf adventure that included Mexico, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. This here is what I learned.

I stopped trying so hard. One of the most interesting compliments someone gave me was that I am so passionate in everything I do. And more often than not, I am called the “100 Pounds of Fury” among other interesting (and perhaps not so nice) descriptive phrases. Surfing has taught me that maybe, instead of jumping into things head first with no helmet on and my hair on fire, I should take a more peaceful, flowing path. Take waves, and other things in life, as they come, but stop trying so hard, stop swimming upstream.

I also now know that I can do anything I want to do if I put my mind to it. Being a female surfer at breaks that were dominated by dudes from all over the world was, so far, the hardest thing that I’ve done in my life. There were days where I felt like a small, defeated “chick” in the water. But I still paddled out and caught waves. I tried my best to hold my head high and be a surfer.

And most importantly, I can call myself a surfer.

Because, when are you really, truly allowed to call yourself a “surfer”? I’ve asked myself this question a few times. Is it when you stand up on your very first whitewater wave? Or when you can pull off floaters and aerials? Is it when you surf a certain number of days per week/month/year? It was a cold Christmas morning in Baja when I was almost surprised to discover that I had become surfer, when I paddled out into overhead waves, full of gratitude and grace in that cold morning. The path to becoming a surfer resides in your heart, it is endless, and filled with potential.

I may not have an outdoor shower, but I will always be a surfer. And you should be too.

 

Journey’s End…Or Not

Where to begin? Or end? Jet lag still haunts us. Chris had “minor” surgery on his hand two days ago. We are temporarily homeless and jobless. Our tanned skin is rapidly fading. But after 12 months of travel, we are home. Sure, we are frustrated with some things (like all the rules we have here), we miss surfing every day and we have complete sticker shock when purchasing anything (like a $12 salad). But, overall, we are feeling pretty good about our return. Caveats: We are still in the celebrity stage where our friends and family really want to hang out with us AND the weather is ridiculously pleasant right now. These two things are helping. We haven't had much time to reflect and think about our experiences, but we have figured out what we spent and put together a “best of” list.

What did it take for us to have a year off work and twelve months of surfing? $26,089

This figure includes: our daily expenses both in Mexico and in Asia, our travel health insurance, truck insurance for Mexico, the remainder of our mortgage that we had to cover that our renters were not paying, our flights within Asia, Dozer's expenses in Mexico (mostly kibble), things we bought on the road in Asia (new surfboard, new camera, clothes, etc), and medical expenses while traveling. Basically any money that left our hands from the day we left Oregon to the day we returned is included.

This figure DOES NOT include: our flights to and from Asia (we used Alaska Air miles to get us there and back), truck camper costs, new surfboards, other gear and clothing purchases, medical costs before the trip (vaccinations, prescriptions, etc.), and basically any costs that we incurred to prepare for the trip.

We found we could spend very little money in Mexico and the bulk of our expenses were diesel and food. Because we cooked most of our meals in the camper, daily food expenses were very cheap. Obviously since we were camping, accomodation cost very little, typically between $0 and $12 a night. Our daily expenses were roughly $36 day in Mexico, for a total of $6606 for six months. Wow! That is cheap, even for us dirtbags!

Planning for the Asia leg of the trip was harder and we didn't really know what we would spend. Daily costs such as meals and accomodation are very, very cheap in Asia, but add on extra purchases and tours and sightseeing, and the cost comes up a bit. We also purchased all of our flights within Asia, eight total, as we went, so those costs are included in the numbers. Our daily expenses in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia for five months cost us $85 day, for a total of $12,750 for five months. That includes everything!

We candidly share this information because we aren't independently wealthy and we had to work really hard to do this. We did our best to plan and budget. We spent money as thoughtfully as we could while still having a trip of a lifetime. We are still amazed that we pulled it off; we now know that we can do anything if we put our minds to it.

Hottest We've Ever Been In Our Entire Lives:

  1. Bemo ride in Krui, Sumatra. 18 people in one tiny minivan. Slowest driver ever.
  2. First day hiking the Temples of Angkor. Perhaps the hottest place on earth, at least we thought so.
  3. Our last day in Kuala Lumpur when we went to Batu Caves. The locals were sweating.
  4. Pushing our tuk tuk up a dirt road in Sri lanka after the clutch went out. I had to push and run along side the tuk tuk while Chris steered.
  5. Sitting on the train in the station in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The power went out, the fans turned off, I had at least seven people touching me. Curry odors were emanating out of every pore.

Scariest Transport:

  1. The “taxi driver road rage” night in Sumatra. After our driver took us to his “friends” restaurant where we proceeded to get totally taken, he decided to really scare us by driving like an insane person while we begged and pleaded for him to slow down.
  2. Ojek (motorbike taxi) ride in Bangkok. It was three of us on the tiny motorbike trying to pull our knees in tight enough so they wouldn't hit cars as we wove through Bangkok traffic at high speed.
  3. Driving Highway 1 in Baja, near El Rosario. This section of highway is so, so narrow with big trucks, cows, and giant potholes.
  4. The flight from Jakarta, Indonesia to Colombo, Sri Lanka when the four traditionally dressed Arab men stormed the front of the plane before we hit the runway to land, and the flight attendant screamed at them to sit down. Apparently they just wanted to be the first in line to get off the plane.
  5. The descent through the Ella Gap in Sri Lanka on a packed bus. The driver was hopped up on betel leaves and was careening down the road, one hand on the wheel, the other on the horn.

Top Five Medical Emergencies:

  1. Getting stitches in my face in Guerrero Negro, Baja. The only English the doctor knew was The Eagles and Rolling Stones songs. He did a fabulous job sewing me up and was a pretty good singer, too!
  2. Chris going to a government hospital in Akkaraipattu, Sri Lanka with a fractured hand. This one is hard to describe, but to give you an idea, Chris had to argue for a while to get the radiologist to put the lead apron on him while he was getting an X-ray. The tech tried to explain that it's the same amount of radiation that we get from the sun. The argument ensued, with Chris replying “yeah, but I'm not standing on the sun!”. He eventually gave him the apron.
  3. Stingray wound infection in Baja. A few weeks after it happened, Chris foot swelled up like a balloon, so off we went to a clinic, to try to explain everything in Spanish.
  4. Finally going to a hospital in Bangkok after eight days of stomach woes and fever. After two days of shopping at Chatuchak Market and (literally) holding it together while walking by the giant dried fish vendor, it was time to see a doctor.
  5. With only five days left, I came down with a sever sore throat and fever in Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka. AT THE SAME TIME, the chickens at our guesthouse were dying. I was convinced I had Avian Flu until I went to a clinic in Pottuvil and got antibiotics for a throat infection. Ah, the perils of travel.

Best Wildlife Encounters


  1. Elephants, elephants, elephants. Sri Lanka was amazing for elephant sightings! Elephant Nature Park in Thailand was an incredible place to learn more about the complex life of a pachyderm.
  2. Ocean and desert wildlife in Baja, Mexico. The intersection of rugged desert with the Pacific Ocean created a surprisingly vibrant ecosystem. We saw coyotes, snakes, osprey, herons, tons of migratory birds, whales (almost every day), dolphins, sharks, seals, fish, and more.
  3. Leopard sighting in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka. We were pretty excited to see this big cat in the wild. Kudos to Sri Lanka for their National Parks.
  4. Monkeys. We know, we know, lots of people don't care for monkeys. They are kind of like the squirrels of the tropics. But we have to admit they are pretty cool when you see them jumping from tree to tree.
  5. Cobra? While we didn't really WANT to see a cobra, it was kind of cool to see a cobra. Sri Lanka has the highest “death by snakebite” in the world. Yikes!

Best Food:

  1. Every fish that Chris caught in Mexico. Halibut, corvina, white sea bass, sierra. We cooked or made ceviche every way possible. Good eats!
  2. Thai cart food. Pad thai, satay, Penang curry, it's all delicious. I think Thais could cook tree bark and it would be delicious.
  3. Rotis with dhal and coconut sambol at blue ocean in Arugam bay. I ate this virtually every day. It is a very simple, but very satisfying and delicious meal. We had heard varying reports of Sri Lankan food, but found it to be fabulous!
  4. Baja fish tacos with a cold Mexican macrobrew. Tony's in Guerrero Negro and El Viejo in Los Barriles are at the top of the list.
  5. Banana, chocolate and coconut rotis at Okanda. There's just something about gorging on these after a four hour surf session that feels oh so good.

Best “Locals Only” Activities:

  1. Seeing Kelly Slater win the 2011 Hurley Pro at Trestles in California. Hanging out with the best surfers in the world was a great way to start a year long surf trip.
  2. Watching Indonesians clear big jumps at the 2012 Indonesian Motocross Championships on modified scooters. It was hysterical being the only “Bules” in a sea of thousands of Indonesians.
  3. Hiking in the jungle for an hour with Mexican teenagers to a surf break. Diego, Bernardo and Daniel were exceptional people, great surfers and just a joy to spend a day with. They also kinda made us feel old.
  4. Swerving around elephants while driving our tuk tuk in the pre-dawn hours. Driving our own tuk tuk in Sri Lanka was a complete blast and gave us the freedom to explore the east coast of the country.
  5. Going to a Mexian rodeo, complete with amateur bull riders taking shots of tequila before attempting to stay on a bull. Viva Mexico!

 

It Was A Good Run

In a few days, we'll be back in the US, basking in the Pacific Northwest in our wool socks and puffy coats. As our Kiwi friend Tom said, “New Zealand is cold, quiet, green and epic”. We nodded in sync as our thoughts shifted to coming home to Oregon, which is also “cold, quiet, green and epic”. It's time to leave our quaint wood and cardboard shack on the beach, the mischievous resident puppy Rennie, the daily dahl, sambol and rotti meals and the warm waves.

Every day is an adventure, but here are a few highlights from the last two weeks:

  • Two elephant encounters on the road. The first time, we had to swerve to miss an elephant running across the road while we were driving our tuk tuk to an early morning surf session. Yes it was dark out. And elephants are dark. And big. The second encounter was during our 10 hour taxi ride to the airport, with a very large elephant in the road, taking up a whole lane and then some. Our driver stopped, we waited…and waited…finally the driver decided to go for it. He approached, hit the gas, and whizzed by, just a few feet away. A bit of an adrenaline rush, I must say. Check out the video below.
  • Driving our TukTuk down a dirt road and seeing a perhaps six foot (?) cobra slithering along side the road. What do you do? Well, we yell “cobra!”, stop the TukTuk and check it out. The sight of that hand sized hood will forever by imprinted in my brain.
  • Running into David from Switzerland. We met David our second week in Indonesia, in April, and spent a week with him in southern Sumatra for our first intimidating surfing experiences on Indo reef. He was off to the Mentawais and who knows where else and we never expected to see him again. Then, four months later, he walks into a restaurant where we are having lunch in Sri Lanka. Small world.
  • Surviving a very, very intense storm that produced at least one tornado, sending fishing boats into the air, downing trees and wreaking havoc on Arugam Bay. We huddled in our beach shack in the dark, listening to coconuts raining down on our thatched roof, thankful that we weren't in a tent.

We had one of our most amazing sessions one morning as we teamed up with our South African neighbor, now friend, Charl, and drove to a nearby point. For an hour, it was the three of us in the water, watching the sunrise, taking long, perfect shoulder to head high waves, and trying to pull into mini barrels. We caught so many waves that hour, that none of us were in the line up at the same time. Sure it's not Indo, it wasn't an epic swell by any means, blah, blah, blah. But it was magic and we still talk about it.

True to form, Chris is coming home broken, his right hand anyway. The story… We were surfing a nice morning session catching some mellow waves, just the two of us. Throughout the morning, the crowd was building, with many surfers with awful etiquette and poor skills. A bad combo, and we should have gotten out of the water like we usually do then. But no, with a week left we kept going. Chris was run over by another surfer and the end result was a broken metatarsal for Chris and a cracked and dented surfboard for the other guy. A trip to the local and very dodgy government hospital 45 minutes away confirmed in X-rays that it is a significant fracture. They “decided” not to cast it for some reason and we'll be coming home to help a Bend orthopedist send his kids to college. So we made it 11 months and 3 weeks, which is not too bad for a guy with a long history of breaking himself.

As we spend the next three days traveling home, we begin to reflect upon the last year. It's overwhelming and emotional. And mostly we are still shocked at times that we actually pulled it off! While we planned and worked hard and saved, there was always the fear that things would go completely sideways either before we could go or during our travels. Now we face the fears of the “after” – how to go back to living and working in the States, and NOT SURFING everyday. Of course we always have lots of ideas for future surf travel. Regardless, we are filled with gratitude for all that we have seen and done, people we have met, food we have eaten, animals we've encountered, and most importantly, waves we have surfed.

We did it!

Rennie, our resident puppy in our yard.
Morning traffic.
Chris killing it.
Sunrise session.
 
Katy killing it.
Sunset session.
This family enjoyed an evening at the beach watching surfers.
 

 

Things We Love

After almost of year of travel, both driving through Mexico and backpacking through Asia, we've decided to share some of our favorite items that we carry with us every day. Packing for long term travel is daunting, and we've made both good and bad decisions. Here are our top ten, okay, eleven things we love having with us, in no particular order:

Eagle Creek Travel Equipment. In 1999 we purchased a couple convertible travel packs, meaning you can wear them on your back or use the wheels and roll them behind you. For us, its critical to be able to either carry the pack, like when you are walking on the beach looking for a place to stay, or roll them, like when you are in airports and on paved roads. Because they open up like regular luggage, they are so much easier to live out of than a regular backpack. Eagle Creek also gets high praise for its durability and warranty which we have used in the past. We are also huge fans of their Pak-It cubes that keep our stuff contained. Thanks to Chris' mom and dad for handing these back down to us. Check 'em out at www.eaglecreek.com.

Watermans Sunscreen. We have basically been living outside for a year, and good sunscreen is key for us. While not cheap, Watermans Sun Cream and Face Stick SPF 55 proved it was worth the price. The sunblock ingredient is zinc oxide (so old skool) so it actually works, unlike most chemical blocks. It also stays on for hours while in the water and we needed surprisingly little of it because it lasted so long. Highly recommend it. Thank you Mike and Tracy Day for recommending Watermans and helping us get a bunch of it!

Sea to Summit Silk/Cotton Sleeping Sheets. One of the best investments we made. Super comfy, light, quick to dry after washing and/or hot nights when the power goes out and there is no fan, which is so very common, especially in Sri Lanka. They also pack up into tiny little stuff sacks. Thanks to Matt Lewis for helping us out there!

Patagonia A/C Yarn Dyed Shirts. Yeah they're expensive, but light, comfy and durable. What button-up shirt could you wear every day for 18 days while rafting down the Grand Canyon and then wear it for three years in an office cubicle, tucked in with a belt, then succumb it to Mexico dirt, then improve the design by removing the sleeves for the SE Asia leg of the tour? Chris' “Canyon Shirt” is like a baby blankie, full of holes, thin as rice paper, but completely lovable. What a man.

Patagonia Swimwear. Ladies, looking for good suits that are cute (important) and actually stay on when you surf? Katy swears these are the only bikinis that stay put after going over the falls in Indo. Tested and approved. And after almost of year of surfing, they show virtually no signs of giving up. Which means she won't have to buy any more soon. Darn.

Barnes and Noble Nook E-Reader. What a great time in which we live. Guidebooks, novels, and non-fiction classics all on one device, readable in full daylight and the battery lasts forever. Thanks to Katy's mom for the Nook. Thanks to an anonymous good friend who somehow supplied us with over a hundred free e-books. Side note: To date, Katy has read 37 books (not including travel guide books) in the last year!!!!!!

iPad with 3G. In Mexico we had our MacBook but in Asia, we have a first generation iPad with us for entertainment, research, navigation, blogging, photo storage and editing, and storage of important numbers in case of emergencies. This also comes in handy when you are waiting for hours in a scuzzy bus station and want to entertain the locals with pictures of novelty things like snow or mountain biking. Unlike in the US, connecting to the Internet is SO cheap and easy. In every country we've visited, a local cellular SIM card could be purchased for between $1.50 and $5.00 USD. We could then add Internet usage for $5 to $10 USD, and recharge it as needed. This is one of those things that is so much easier in other countries than in the US. The iPad is both a lifesaver and the source of some majorly epic battles in sharing.

Thermarest Compressible Travel Pillows. These pillows have been with us since 2003, when we bike toured the Great Divide, and they still work great! Yes, they are kind of bulky and take up space, but these are lifesavers. Do not set off on eight hour bus ride without one, or you'll be drooling on your Indonesian neighbor instead of your comfy pillow. Also, while Asian guesthouses and homestays seem to usually have good mattresses, they are lacking in good pillows. They're well worth both the price and the weight.

Gold Bond Medicated Powder. Let's face it. It's the tropics. We are in the water a lot. It is hot. It is sticky. Rashguards don't always work. Things chafe. 'Nuff said.

Yoga Mat. Yes, it's sounds bulky, heavy and frivolous and it is. But when we are surfing a lot, it is so nice to have for yoga and stretching. When we are not surfing, it's so nice to have for stretching and yoga for staying in surfing shape. We cut the mat down a bit to fit better in our luggage. It also works great as padding between the surfboards when transporting them in the boardbag.

And most important……Addict Surfboards. Before embarking for Mexico, we needed new shortboards to travel with, so we did some research and found a shaper that we really liked in San Diego. Micah Shannahan of Addict Surfboards listened carefully to us, asked good questions, and understood what type of boards we needed, even if we didn't totally know what type of boards we needed. He set us up with two great all-around Epoxy shortboards to get us going. And, we got to spend a few hours with him at his shaping bay where he just gushed over how stoked he was to shape our boards and how excited he was for our adventure, which made us more stoked and excited. We couldn't do it without these babies!

 

On The Rebound

A few years ago, when we were planning this “year of surf travel”, the inevitable came up: Are we too old for this? We are going to be truthful here. We are not too old but….we are getting tired.

While traveling through SE Asia (Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia) allowed us to see amazing sights, it took its toll. Another 10 hour overnight bus ride? Check! A quick four days in Cambodia, hiking the Temples of Angkor in 90 degrees with 110% humidity? Got it! Or, a day that goes like this: Early morning TukTuk ride to a bus station. Three hour bus ride to the Cambodia/Thailand border. Standing in a maddening four and half hour queue to get through Thai immigration. Another four hour minibus ride to Bangkok, with a terrible driver hitting the brakes then gassing it every 30 seconds. We're not done yet. Another classic ten hour overnight bus to Chiang Mai, complete with a drunk Thai woman singing karaoke and trying to be my best friend. That's 25 hours of travel, straight up. And just to clarify, at 39 and 40, we ARE the oldest people, surrounded by chain smoking European youngsters who are heading home in time to get back to “Uni”. Yeah, like, I finished “Uni”, uh, 18 years ago people!

Things really came to a head when I (Katy), after eight days of gastrointestinal woes, checked myself into a Bangkok hospital for treatment. After two days of wandering Chatuchak weekend market, which is touted as being the largest market in Southeast Asia, I hit bottom with a 100.5 fever. We suppose my street food habit indeed got the best of me, as I was diagnosed with an intestinal bacterial infection, and was pumped with intravenous antibiotics then sent home with a weeks worth of Cipro. Let the record show, however, that I persevered through fever, stomach cramps, nausea and the unthinkable all in the name of shopping to bring home cute clothes from Asia. Chris is quietly preparing his “Husband Of The Year” speech for his unwavering committment and support while I tried on shoes and jeans in my feverish state.

We know we aren't getting any tears from anyone, and we aren't asking for sympathy, mind you. And, yes, we know, we tend to overdo it a bit. But we are also trying to be honest about ourselves and the reality of travel burnout. No matter what the other travel bloggers say, it happens. The energy expended in daily life in a foreign country is huge: the game of trying to figure out how to get anywhere you want to go, the ever present language barriers, having to figure out where and what to eat for every meal, the constant bargaining for goods and services, the feeling that you are generally at the mercy of others, the general lack of solitude/privacy, and just plain ole homesickness for the familiar.

We combat these feelings several ways. First, we must get back to surfing. Having a “purpose” is good for us, and getting exercise and being in the water just makes us feel so much better. We now know we are surfers who travel, not travelers who surf. Second, we've tried to slow down. We moved quickly through Asia, never stopping somwhere for more than four days at a time, constantly sightseeing and keeping busy. Slowing down helps, even if that means staying holed up in an air conditioned room for a few days watching the Olympics on cable television and eating take out in bed. We did this by booking such a room (gotta love www.agoda.com) in Bangkok for a few nights before leaving Thailand. Third, while we try to slow down, we know that change is good too. A change in scenery, food, culture, activities helps keep us invigorated and excited.

So, while we have just very slightly hit the wall, we are on the rebound. Being back in Sri Lanka is awesome, and we already have a train ride, many crowded bus rides, some temple visits, and a few days in Kandy under our belts. We just adore the bustling mini-city of Kandy with its tea stalls, saree shops and curry restaurants. We also had a great day touring some of the Ancient Cities area. Even though we are pretty maxed out on temples, and we've seen literally hundreds of Buddhas, we managed to get to the Dambulla cave temples. We also acted on gut instinct and skipped going to the expensive ancient temple on Sigiriya, but instead let our TukTuk driver take us to the next rock outcropping over. We hiked to the top by ourselves, and got an excellent 360 degree view including Sigiriya and the hordes of people. Oftentimes, foregoing the obvious attraction leads you to better stuff.

We are now headed back to Arugam Bay, where we will stay put for at least three weeks, and pretty much do nothing but surf, eat, sleep, read and look for elephants. We'll be blogging as much as we can, so expect to hear from us again soon!

Sri Lanka has some of the best fresh fruits and vegetables.
Buying bulk Ceylon tea in Kandy.
Chris is trying some local booze, “lemon gin”. It smelled and tasted like Murphy's lemon scented furniture polish. We opted for a pint of rum instead as it just seemed to be a better idea.
These guys are rad looking.
We had lucky front row seats on this ride. There were easily 40 people crammed behind us in what was essentially a minibus.
There he is again, The Buddha! Dambulla cave temples.
I've been perfecting my “reclining Buddha” pose, but I need to work on keeping my eyes open.
View of Sigiriya from our rock. You can see the staircase with people.
PUSH!!!!!!!!

 

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