Friday, December 02, 2005

Been there, done that

December 2, 2005
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Nearly a year after our journey with the Arcadia University expedition to Africa, another expedition is entering the Gran Caldera de Luba on Bioko Island.

A swashbuckling Spanish professor named Ignacio Martin is leading an expedition into the volcano crater in Equatorial Guinea. He is also filing a blog, just like we did last year.

Here's the most curious part: The professor claims he is leading the first expedition into the caldera. His employer, the Polytechnic University of Madrid, issued a press release saying the professor is going where no man has ever gone before. Even El Pais, the great national Spanish newspaper, swallowed the audacious story unchallenged.

The professor has been getting a lot of heat on his blog (it's in Spanish).

Thursday, February 17, 2005


February 17, 2005
Philadelphia, Pa. USA
N 39.95995° W 75.16360° Elevation 62 feet. Temp: 37° F

My editors at The Philadelphia Inquirer just got the satellite telephone bill for the time Barbara Johnston and I spent beaming our reports out of Equatorial Guinea last month. You are now reading one of the most expensive blogs ever to hit the Inquirer’s little corner of the blogosphere. For the betterment of humankind, not to mention my future in this business, please do us a favor: Go to the Inquirer's Web site, click on some ads, buy an apron at the Online Store or just browse the Wing Bowl coverage for a while and drive up the page-views. We have to create some sort of revenue stream to make online newspapering a viable business.

In the month since we returned from accompanying the Arcadia University expedition to Africa, we have readjusted to life with proper beds, hot showers and sub-freezing weather. The accolades from colleagues continue to trickle in for our groundbreaking work in Africa, where we filed stories, photos and Web entries every day from a primeval rainforest. More than two dozen newspapers and Web sites picked up some or all of the nine-part series.

Yet some people were insufficiently impressed that we were able to haul a bunch of delicate electronic gear into a soaking-wet forest where few people would dare attempt such a feat and make the stuff work without fail. A few people misunderstood the intent of The Disappearing Drill series. The stories documented the efforts of two professors to save endangered species in Africa, including a rare monkey called the drill. The stories provided a snapshot of a worldwide trend in which species are disappearing at a rate matched only by the great prehistoric extinctions.

To me that’s a pretty hefty subject. But some people thought we were just monkeying around.

A few vegans and sportsmen misinterpreted the expedition’s intent as a campaign against hunting. But the expedition’s leaders were pretty clear they’re opposed only to the slaughter of endangered species, not to the hunting of nonthreatened species (most of the Africans who work for their project and support it are hunters and continue to hunt plentiful species to feed their families).

A suburban newspaper columnist complained that the series symbolized the decline of the Inquirer. I disagree. Some of us remember when Inquirer editor Gene Roberts dispatched a reporter to Africa to write a lengthy series about the endangered rhinoceros. So the Inquirer's attention to the biodiversity crisis is nothing new. I'd argue that the newspaper’s commitment to our African journey should warm the hearts of journalists concerned about the state of our industry, rather than arouse petty jealousy.

I digress.

This was my first effort at blogging. It was a great pleasure. But reading the blog now, moving backward in time, is like watching the movie Memento, which moves backward and forward simultaneously -- very creative, but discombobulating. Here’s my suggestion if you want to experience this blog as it was originally written: Start with the archived entries on the right side of this page. The first entry is on Christmas Day, followed by updates each day as the trip unfolds.

Alternatively, you can randomly jump around the daily entries. It’s the Internet, after all. There’s no rhyme or reason to it.

But don’t forget: When you’re done, go to the Inquirer’s Web site and order one of those aprons.

Andrew Maykuth

A shot of Barbara and I working under the power of flashlights
and generators in the caldera's north camp.
(Photo by Paul Jaffe, Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program)

Saturday, January 15, 2005


January 15, 2005
Glenside, Pa., USA
N 40.09243° W 75.16562 Elevation 306 feet. Temp: 28° F

We have returned to the place where this journey began three weeks ago on Christmas Day, a loading dock at Arcadia University, where seven out of the 24 people on the Arcadia expedition to Equatorial Guinea arrived tonight and will continue on our own, separate ways, I am tired and my muscles ache, not from the expedition, but from the 30-hour journey from Malabo to Philadelphia.

Just a few words about our journey back on Iberia Airways, a third-world airline masquerading as a first-world carrier. We left Malabo at 1 a.m, today and landed in Madrid at 7 a.m., expecting to connect to a noon flight to JFK. The flight was cancelled, however – broken equipment. So that gave us an extra four hours to enjoy the Madrid airport, which actually only requires about an hour to experience its highlights. When we finally boarded a packed Airbus A340, an American woman complained that the aircraft’s PA was playing Christmas carols nearly 10 days after Epiphany, and she found this offensive. Maybe she is an Iberia neophyte, but I’d say the music selection was a misdemeanor – the least of the airline’s problems. More vexing was the audio system didn’t function properly, so the movies were all silent films. The Iberia staff was indifferent, as it was on most of the other seven flights I’ve taken recently.

The son of the prime minister of an African nation sat a few rows behind us,, experiencing economy class perhaps for the first time in his life. He rang the attendant call button every few seconds when his needs are not met. I’m sure it was a character-building experience for him to be ignored like the rest of us.

But at least two people I know are not unhappy with Iberia’s service. Gail W. Hearn and Wayne A. Morra, the two Arcadia professors who led our expedition to save endangered species on Bioko island, got bumped up to business class by a friend of the program who works for the airline and pulled a few strings. Hearn and Morra deserve a few special treats for all the work they’ve done on their program in Equatorial Guinea. I would not have mentioned the upgrades had not Wayne strolled back to our cattle-car accommodations while we were finishing our dinner that closely resembled cat food and regaled us with stories about how great the dinner was in business class and wondered why we didn’t have personal video screens with our seats. I promised Wayne his visit would rate a blog entry, so being a man of my word, here it is. Wayne, by the way, is a very humorous fellow who suggested “Epiblogue” as the title for this epilogue. I don’t want to be accused of plagiarism.

Enough about the airline. Our stuff arrived intact, and Morra’s wife, Rita, drove up from Philadelphia in Arcadia’s van to welcome us with home-baked cookies. Even with the delays, I am grateful for the miracle of jet travel -- it has become such a common and accepted part of our lives to be able to hop onto a plane and get just about anywhere on earth in one sleep-deprived day.

One by one, Inquirer photographer Barbara Johnson and my wife, Amy Blackstone, have said goodbye today to the extraordinary group of volunteers who assembled to do the wildlife census for Arcadia. It was really a swell group of people who became good friends over the course of three weeks (one person who wrote a question to our Web site’s forum implied that the participants would be at each other’s throats, as though the expedition were some sort of Reality TV program, but that’s not at all how it played out). We are also filled with warm memories of the academics from the National University of Equatorial Guinea, most of whom genuinely are trying to establish an educational institution in an emerging nation where freedom is not assured. On many levels, what Arcadia University is doing in Equatorial Guinea is a positive thing – trying to encourage conservation and to develop the national educational institution, while respecting local traditions and building a strong grassroots organization. Hearn and Morra seem to have made a real impact in this small country.

Whether that will actually lead to lasting changes in the nation is a bigger question that we look at that a little more closely in an article in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. Conservation is a foreign concept in a place like Equatorial Guinea, and you could even see by the way the Equatoguineans consumed the expedition’s supplies that they are more accustomed to using the available resources as quickly as possible because there is little upside to trying to regulate your own consumption if it only allows your competitor to take more for himself. “When it’s gone,” the Africans would say with a shrug, “it’s gone.”

To the regular readers of this blog, thanks for dropping in. I had a lot of fun writing the updates on the travels of the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program, and I hope it was entertaining and informative.

Friday, January 14, 2005

A lazy, hazy day

January 14, 2005
Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.74949° E 8.76031 Elevation 122 feet. Temp: 87° F

A deep sense of indolence has overtaken our expedition members here on our last day in Equatorial Guinea. We’ve toured the highlights of Malabo, and the younger members of the expedition hung out late at the discos and are feeling a little sluggish today. The Harmattan, the dusty wind from the north that seems to be carrying much of the Sahara with it, has given the air a uniform sandy hue and taste. The locals are also taking advantage of the dry weather to burn grass and vegetation, so the dusty air is mixed with smoke. It makes me long for the rain that two weeks ago, that I thought at the time was so tiresome. I am very difficult to satisfy.

Some of our group made a quick visit this morning to an orphanage in Malabo – kind of a reality check on live in Africa. The rest of the day was spent organizing and cleaning up the expedition’s gear. Some will go back to Arcadia University in Glenside, the home of the two professors who organized this mission. Much goes into a lockup at the National University of Equatorial Guinea, where it will remain until later in the year when Arcadia sends students abroad to study here. My personal gear all has a grimy tinge to it that I hope will come out with a brush and detergent.

If I did not have some obligations to finish writing for the newspaper today, I would have joined our group curled up on the grass beneath the awning on the ExxonMobil soccer field where our gear awaits the arrival of a vehicle to take it to the airport tonight. The plane departs in the first hour of Saturday. This journey is drawing to a close.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

It’s all about the gear, Part II

January 13, 2005
Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.74949° E 8.76031 Elevation 122 feet. Temp: 74° F

My boots dried out days ago, and we survived two weeks in the rainforest, so it's time for me to swagger a little bit about our good fortune with communication gear.

In the weeks leading up to this expedition to Bioko island, I spent much time fretting about the logistical details of taking our electronic gear into the rainforest and transmitting to the Internet every day, using only the power sources we carried in. I worried about the rain and what it would do to the computers and cameras. I researched the generators and how much gasoline they would consume. And I ground my teeth in my sleep over whether our satellite telephone signal would be able to penetrate the tropical rainforest canopy and get our story out. Any failure could foil my plans.

We made plans, and backup plans and alternatively, if everything failed, we planned to resign ourselves to writing our stories after returning home, just as we did in the old days before we were “liberated” with this wonderful ability to make a connection from anywhere in the world.

I’m happy to report that everything worked fine. Actually better than expected.

We certainly encountered plenty of rain in the first half of the trip. But the waterproof bags and sacks worked flawlessly. We were religious about keeping the computer in the bag except when we were using it. When I saw a lot of condensation building up inside the Aquapac that contained my computer, I dropped a small sack containing silica gel into the bag and the problem went away. I always made sure that I carried my computer in my own day pack so that nobody else would be responsible for mishandling it. And when it really rained, we put all our packs inside large Cabela dry bags that could contain a big duffel bag or a full-sized backpack. At times, our equipment was essentially triple-bagged, and everything stayed dry.

Barbara Johnston, the Inquirer's photographer, was also diligent about keeping her digital cameras dry. Except for a few minor setbacks, her stuff worked well.

I grossly overestimated our power needs. The little Honda 1000-watt generators that the expedition carried to each camp were very fuel efficient and very quiet. We probably only used five gallons of the 25 gallons of gasoline we took on the expedition (some of the gasoline was to be used in an emergency by the expedition’s inflatable boat, but fortunately, we never had to use the boat, which was in terrible repair). With sufficient power from the generator, the 12-volt automobile battery we bought in Malabo and carried to the beach with us proved to be a luxurious redundancy. We did not carry it up the mountain to the camps in the caldera, and I’m sure the porters would be grateful if they knew we saved them from hauling a lead-acid battery into the wilderness. We left the battery with the villagers of Ureca, who have an old power generator they can use to charge it periodically.

We considered using solar cells to provide our power. Paul Jaffe, an electrical engineer who was working on a project called CyberTracker with the expedition, brought a couple of panels with him. Solar cells are a great idea, but they don’t provide a huge amount of output and they take a long time to charge a battery in the rainforest.

As for the satellite telephone, it worked pretty well most nights. There always was a hole somewhere in the forest ceiling through which we could aim the satellite antenna.

Sorry to bore many of you with these details. I’m putting them on the record for gear geeks who might consider trying to put their stuff through the same paces. I don’t think we came close to pushing our gear to the limit.

We’re having a technical day here in Malabo, at the ExxonMobil facility where we are camped. I’ve been writing. Barbara has assembled a lovely slide show of the expedition, accompanied by music we recorded in the village of Ureca. We’ll show it tonight at a farewell dinner for us. It’s really the first chance I’ve had to look at her output, since we were often working on our own jobs at the same time. The photos are really splendid. She’s available for speaking engagements.

Most of the expedition members have run out of chores to do and have explored about as much of Malabo and they care to, at least during the daytime before the dancing begins. Boredom seems to be setting in. Four members of the group went to the cathedral today to take a look at the beautiful church, but were thrown out by a policewoman who said that only Equatoguineans could enter the holy place. The tourism ministry authorization they carried apparently did not persuade the police. As I wrote yesterday, Equatorial Guinea is a xenophobic little country, and while it slowly gets integrated with the rest of the world, I’m sure many visitors will encounter similar frustrations.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Tourists in a strange land

January 12, 2005
Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.74949° E 8.76031 Elevation 122 feet. Temp: 86° F

Since many newspaper editors don’t read Internet blogs, I can let you in on a little secret here without too much worry that this will get on my permanent record: I basically took the day off today. That’s right, I took a slide. I got up this morning and felt the accumulated weariness of two weeks of living in and hiking in the wilderness. I had planned to get down to work writing the last two stories about the Arcadia University expedition to Equatorial Guinea that I’ve been accompanying. But now we are back in civilization, and when one of the expedition members suggested this morning that we go into town and check out the capital of Equatorial Guinea, the temptation undermined my work ethic. I shut down the computer for the day.

We’re staying in tents on a soccer field in the compound of ExxonMobil’s local subsidiary, the biggest oil producer in Equatorial Guinea. ExxonMobil provides free logistical support to the Arcadia project. We’re able to shower in the company’s gym facilities and eat at the company’s cafeteria and they even did some laundry for us – it’s like living amid a little part of Texas planted in Equatorial Guinea. The compound is about a mile or so outside of town, so you can walk into the city if you enjoy exerting yourself in this sticky humid climate, or you can flag down a beat-up Peugeot taxi and pay $2 for a lift. The cab fares are one of the only cheap things about Malabo.

Malabo is not a very big city – estimated population of about 100,000 – and it’s not hard to walk from one side of town to the other. I spent a week here at the beginning of December setting up the permits for this story, so that made me an experienced tourguide. As small and as provincial as Malabo seems, long-term residents say it’s much more exciting now than it was a few years ago, before oil was discovered offshore and money began flowing and immigrants from surrounding countries began to come to earn a few bucks in the boomtown. Ten years ago, there were hardly any cars in town, and even beachfront restaurants were rundown and desolate. Now the restaurants are busy, five bedroom houses rent for $6,000 a month and half the citizenry seems to be sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle without ever having taken a driving lesson.

Despite opening up to outsiders, Equatorial Guinea is still very much a closed society. Foreigners are regarded with suspicion, and I suppose with good reason – the government unraveled a coup plot here last year that was allegedly orchestrated by foreign mercenaries on behalf of exiled opposition leaders. The chaps who were arrested in Malabo claimed they were tortured into confessing. They were sentenced to long terms in a prison that no doubt does not concern itself with rehabilitation. Even though we obtained a permit to take photographs in the city, cameras still provoke so much hostility from the citizenry and hassles from authorities that it’s much easier to just walk around without trying to take pictures. Yet most people in this former Spanish colony respond well to a friendly welcome of “buenos dias.” So we walk along the streets, greeting strangers as though we’re just happy as heck to be here.

The locals are mostly indifferent to outsiders without cameras, which is a welcome change from other cities in Africa that I’ve visited. There are some benefits to a police state, and one is security and the other is the absence of beggars. Except for errant drivers, Malabo is a pretty safe city to walk around in. The architecture has a Spanish colonial charm. In recent weeks, municipal committees have visited various commercial districts and instructed building owners to paint or fix the tawdry structures – they do this by painting a “P” or and “R” on a building that requires paint or repair. Reportedly the government threatens to bulldoze the buildings whose owners fail to comply. As a consequence, the city is abuzz with reconstruction and awash in fresh paint.

As we made our way though town, stopping in the well-kept Roman Catholic cathedral and avoiding the stares of military guards outside official buildings, we made our way to the Malabo Central Market. Most of the expedition volunteers had not had an opportunity to see the bushmeat market where women vendors sell wild game, including the monkeys that the expedition has been counting in the wilderness in the hope of preventing their being hunted into extinction. Mama Anita, the chairwoman of the market vendors, was pleased to see me again after my previous two visits, and she gave me the traditional right-cheek, left-cheek kiss as I leaned across a couple of fly-infested quartered antelopes that she was selling on her table. Sometimes you have to do difficult things in this business to understand all sides of a story.

We didn’t stay long, but wandered through the rest of the market to look over the assembled fruits, vegetables, meats, clothing and hardware available in the market. Many vendors make a living buying large quantities of commodities that they divide into smaller portions to sell to individuals who have limited funds, making a small profit on the margins. One vendor was selling tiny Baggies that contained maybe a half dozen rigatoni. We wondered what somebody would do with only six little pieces of pasta, but it gives you a sense of the vastly different lives that most of the world leads compared to those of us who live in a land of plenty. Obesity is not a big public health concern in Equatorial Guinea.

After coffee at a charming café and lunch at the Spanish Cultural Center, we visited the few craft vendors here who cater to the tourist trade. This is really not a tourist-friendly place – a country where they arrest people with cameras and where a cheap hotel room goes for $90 is not exactly attracting a lot of packaged tours. Most of the African crafts sold here are imported from other countries, and they are priced high for foreign oil workers with lots of cash and little time to shop around. But for many of the expedition, this may be their only trip to Africa, so they were in a buying mood. Barbara Johnston, the Inquirer’s photographer who is accompanying me, did her best to boost the local economy.

I am back in the ExxonMobil compound for the evening, writing this in an air-conditioned recreation room while some of the younger expedition members lounge in leather sofas watching an inane Adam Sandler movie on television. The oil company’s pesticide machine has just fogged the compound in its weekly attempt to keep malaria at bay. Two nights ago we were in wild country, detached from the power grid, ankles nibbled by sand flies, far removed from these modern comforts. I am concerned that the memory is already beginning to fade.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Spirits for the spirits

January 11, 2005
Aboard the Seabulk St. Tammany, at sea off Bioko island, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.27275° E 8.41943 ° Elevation 0 feet. Temp: 81° F

For the first time in two weeks since this expedition from Arcadia University landed on Moraka Beach like invading marines, my computer is working on something other than self-generated power – I’m plugged into an outlet in the cabin of the St. Tammany. It’s air-conditioned here – climate control, what an alien concept. The members of our expedition to Equatorial Guinea, spent and exhausted, are stretched out flat on the deck as though some huge wind came through and knocked everyone down. The last two weeks of hiking in the rainforest, conducting a census of endangered beasts at the southern end of Bioko island, has taken its toll.

Considering the amount of grog consumed in our camp last night, it was a miracle the expedition members were able to gather their wits at 5 a.m. to break camp. Loading and unloading ourselves and our gear onto this 152-foot oil-industry work vessel while it floats offshore was probably the most dangerous operation that we did during our three-week trek to Bioko. With half our African helpers bleary-eyed or goofy with emotion this morning – and also looking for last-minute swag from the American visitors – it added one more element of adventure to the moment.

The farewell party last night at the beach camp was something to behold. The wine and the brandy began flowing even before Arcadia Professor Wayne A. Morra started to pay 26 local people who worked as porters, cooks and guides. The expedition put a significant jolt into the local economy – perhaps $10,000 in wages. Some of the wives of the workers showed up to make sure the money was not exhausted in one night of debauchery. The group gathered last night in a circle, and the Africans gave out awards to each member of the expedition. Then the Equatoguinean workers and academics – eight of the 24 expedition members come from the National University of Equatorial Guinea – entertained us with the local songs and dances. The pale visitors responded as best we could by singing “America,” which doesn’t have a real strong dance beat, so the Africans stood quietly and listened, politely applauding at the end. I suppose it was better than singing a few selections from the Methodist hymnal. I would have preferred we sing “YMCA” instead, but nobody could remember all the words, though I think we could have faked it because the most important part of the song is the refrain, when the participants raise their arms and spell out YMCA. The Africans would have thought that was a hoot. Fortunately, sanity took over before we could sing the “Star Spangled Banner” or the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” One of the expedition members sang a rap that incorporated the names of the endangered primates we were here to observe. The Africans, perhaps sensing the potential doom to a party’s mood when white people begin to rap, took control of the musical agenda and we stayed with mostly local music.

Meanwhile, Morra and I were called aside to participate in a ceremony to acknowledge the spirits. Equatoguineans spend quite a bit of time communicating with the spirits, which usually involves the ingestion of alcohol to enhance one’s ability to converse with the other dimension. When we first arrived by boat on Bioko two weeks ago, everyone aboard took a sip of rum and tossed a bit overboard to appease the spirits of our forebears, or at least the forebears of the Africans who could do us some harm on their home turf. Last night Morra and I walked off into the night with some of the community leaders of Ureca village to gather around the sacred stone, which is about the size and shape of a rugby ball, placed on the ground, pointing up. The stone was surrounded by a bunch of empty bottles to which we were about to add one more. We sat on the ground and the community leaders poured rounds from a fresh bottle of brandy, and we acknowledged the spirits and thanked one another for cooperation and friendship and extended good wishes for future expeditions and the work of Arcadia University, as well as The Philadelphia Inquirer, whose circulation could use some mystical support.

After saying a few words and drinking the shot of brandy, the men spilled a little bit of liquid on the stone to share with the spirits. The locals gasped because I think I gave a little too much spirits to the spirits. I’m not sure if they were disturbed by the wastefulness or the fact that the ancestors might be a little tipsy because I really wet down that rock. I was worried for a few moments when one of the locals became possessed by the spirits and let out a sharp shout that startled the fellow next to me. The medium, who earlier that day had been merely a porter hauling bags, began speaking rapidly in the Bubi language with both of his arms extended straight forward, his eyes wide open. The others paid close attention to the things he said, which were translated into Spanish for me. The spirits wanted to suggest a pay raise for the villagers and hoped Arcadia would expand its work on Bioko, but mostly they extended thanks for the warm relations. It was good to know all of us were working on the same page as the spirits. I thought it was interesting that there were only men at this event and Gail W. Hearn, the Arcadia professor who created this expedition nine years ago, was not invited to participate.

Through all this partying and secret ceremonies, at least one of us remained diligent to her work: Barbara Johnston, the Inquirer photographer who is working with me, spent much of the evening editing photos and uploading them to Philadelphia through our satellite telephone. Afterwards, we packed our gear into bags because we received word that our boat would arrive at 6 a.m. today – a little earlier than originally anticipated.

Some folks apparently were uninformed about the early scheduled departure or did not care because the partying and dancing went on until 3 a.m. I know because the noise penetrated the industrial foam earplugs I carry for just such occasions. One of the benefits of growing older is learning that no amount of late-night partying is worth the misery that comes the next day, but many in our group have not yet acquired that wisdom. They were still pretty silly this morning as the sun rose and our boat appeared offshore.

Though a little sloppy and muddy, our goods were packed into large waterproof bags and carried to the beach. We were much lighter than when we arrived two weeks earlier with a half-ton of rice and loads of other food and supplies, all consumed or left behind with the locals. It took quite a few men to heave the 30-foot-long wooden cayuco boat into the water, which the local guys stacked with bags that they carried out in the shallow water atop their hungover heads. I watched with trepidation as the fully loaded boat pierced the surf and headed about a half mile offshore to the workboat. With the help of benign spirits, it all arrived safely and was hoisted by rope aboard the St. Tammany.

The expedition members were loaded four at a time in an inflatable Zodiac to go to the work boat. In calm seas, we climbed out of the tiny craft onto a metal platform that had been extended over the side and hoisted ourselves up about ten feet to the deck. The Africans, upon reaching the big boat, immediately began another joyous circle dance, stomping the wooden deck with glee. Some of the expedition members were tearful. One slept slumped on the deck while the others waved goodbye to the Gran Caldera de Luba, the dark mountain formed by an ancient volcano barely visible through the low clouds.

It’s a two-hour boat ride around the west side of Bioko island to the capital, Malabo, where we will camp once again on the soccer field of the ExxonMobil compound. I anticipate an enthusiastic assault on the oil company’s cafeteria, where many of us will indulge in food fantasies that plagued us during the long hikes – French fries, ice cream, cool beverages, solid meat and green vegetables. I’ll eat anything right now except rice, beans and Powerbars.

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