All posts by Next Exit Travel

Where the Day Takes You

I traveled to Germany for work in October. I was there for the Frankfurt Book Fair. I had something like 40 meetings scheduled, spread over three days. Do you know what that does to an introvert? In the weeks leading up to the trip I had been working 6-7 days a week, plus trying to keep up with stuff going on at home. I was stressed out and exhausted. I was also dealing with back issues that required physical therapy, medication, Icy Hot patches, and a tens unit. Walking helped, as did the hotel bed (I later realized that my bed at home was adding to the problem). Despite trying to learn some basics before the trip, I speak very little German. In fact, I speak so little German that I walked into the men’s room at a restaurant. Trying to navigate in a place where the spoken language is confusing is like trying to make sense of the world without your glasses. Everything looks sort of like you would expect, but it is all blurry. It is easy to confuse a jacket for a monstrous shadow and vice versa. This is all to give context…

I woke early on Friday morning. I needed to be at the Fair grounds by 9am. It was time to make a decision. I had waited all week to see how I felt physically and mentally. I decided to get up and head to the train station. If I could navigate the subway and buy my ticket, I would go. If I failed to do that, I would accept that maybe I wasn’t up for it.

When I booked my plane ticket, I listened to my boss and booked Sunday to Sunday. That meant that we would have time to adjust to the time difference once we got there and leave Saturday open for meetings, if needed. So far, all of my meetings were scheduled for Wednesday-Friday. Each day, I saw Saturday glimmering in the distance. The idea of a day off looked like a mirage. A dream.

That Friday morning I knew Saturday would be open. It was mine. And I was going to Zurich. Why Switzerland? Because I wanted to go to another country. Because it was only about $100US to get there and back. Because no one could find me there. Because I needed a day off. Because I needed to be alone for a while. Because going to Switzerland for the day sounded fucking ridiculous.

U-Bahn at 4:50am
U-Bahn at 4:50am

I woke at 4am and walked to the Merianplatz subway station. At 4:50am I watched a subway mouse hop into a hole by the escalator and marveled at German efficiency. I rode an empty car to the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof. That hour of the morning strips away the kids and parents, the office workers and convention attendees, leaving the shift switch between the night people and the day people.

Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof
Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof
fine chocolates, Capri Sun, paprika flavored chips, and condoms
fine chocolates, Capri Sun, paprika flavored chips, and condoms

The train station in Frankfurt is vast and there is fresh, aromatic gluten as far as the eye can see. Waiting on the platform the vending machines offered fine chocolates, Capri Sun, paprika flavored chips, and condoms.

Everything is meticulously planned, until it isn’t. Until the key to the train is lost (happened to my boss who happened to be on another track on an earlier train that wasn’t going anywhere) or the track changes at the last minute. Until the non-stop train you booked suddenly and without much warning stops and ejects you at the Swiss border.

I had been zipping along the dark countryside, reading zines and writing letters. An Indian journalist from Bahrain took the seat opposite me and we chatted on and off. Politics are bad all over. When the conductor announced something I didn’t understand he jumped up and came back a few minutes later telling me what track to transfer to. An American from California and I rushed to the other track and hoped for the best. Everything around me was happening in languages I didn’t understand. I wanted a bit of an adventure and I was getting it. I was glad I didn’t have any plans. The lack of anxiety was refreshing.

Train that smelled like burning rubber
Train that smelled like burning rubber

The other train felt more like a local commuter train. It wasn’t as sleek and new as the first train. And it smelled like burning rubber. The woman from California and I were the only two people in the train car. Nervous laughter as the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. We could hear the rain beating on the windows. Neither of us understood what the conductor said into his flip phone, but we understood the look of concern when he went outside to stare at the wheels. We shared his concern.

As day finally broke, I was surprised by the landscape. There were beautiful patches, but it was the same as any rail line back home, with blocky industrial buildings and graffiti.

Zurich train station
Zurich train station
Zurich train station
Zurich train station

The train ride was supposed to be a little over four hours. We arrived in Zurich a bit late, but in one piece. The station was overwhelming and I needed to pee. I searched for the restrooms and eventually spotted a sign that I understood. The woman from California was ahead of me, but stopped short of the entrance and left. I walked up and saw why. It cost 2€ or 2.50Francs to use the restroom. I left all of my Euro change in the hotel room as a tip for the cleaning staff. I didn’t expect to need Francs as soon as I got off the train. I went to an ATM and withdrew money so I could pee. The machine slowly dispensed a single 50 Franc note. There may have been a sad trombone playing.

Orell Füssli
Orell Füssli (I think it was the third floor that had English language books)

I gave up on the train station at that point. I opened my Hogwarts umbrella and started walking. The streets of Zurich were filled with adorable children and dogs. I found a bookstore, bought a book, and peed a glorious pee. If you are ever in Zurich, Orell Füssli has wonderful books and a free bathroom.

Hiltl kitchens
Hiltl kitchens
Hiltl, oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world
Hiltl, oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world

While I was all for a “where the day takes you” kind of day, I had one place I wanted to go in Zurich – Hiltl, the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world. They opened in 1898. They have a huge buffet or you can order from a menu. I grabbed a plate and loaded up on everything from German potato salad to Thai tofu to pakoras and a deconstructed pumpkin pie thing. There were probably 80 dishes to choose from. You can go full ”all you can eat” buffet or order by the pound. I went for the latter knowing I might otherwise never leave. It was crowded with people of every age, locals and travelers. Despite the free wifi and protection from the elements, I got up and started walking.

I crisscrossed bridges and wandered up and down cobblestone streets. I stopped and bought Pat and Earl Swiss Army knives because it seemed like the thing to do. The crowds were weird. I still wonder about the scene below. At once point, I thought a protest was gathering. I’m still not sure.

The rain let up and it turned into a beautiful day. I walked through part of the old town and down to the Opera House. From there I walked to Lake Zurich where I was gifted with the most amazing sight. A flock of about ten swans took off from the lake. I didn’t bother trying to photograph them because I was afraid I would miss watching them take flight. Along the lake I saw more swans, ducks, coots, and what I think may have been a raven. Those moments are why I travel.

My back started hurting, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I attached the tens unit, slapped on another Icy Hot patch, and kept walking. I happened across an open-air antique market. I grew up buying and selling at antique and flea markets. I love visiting them in other cities and countries because you can learn so much about a place by what has (or doesn’t have) value.

I'm pretty sure that painting eats souls
I’m pretty sure that painting eats souls

I walked past what I assumed was a sauna along the lake. I was intrigued by the idea but not enough to get naked in front of strangers in a foreign country or even figure out what to wear. I walked to a garden and then eventually to my other loose destination – the FIFA World Football Museum. I wanted to get Garnet a little something from my travels and this seemed a perfect spot. They also had free bathrooms and excellent wifi.

Outside the sauna
Outside the sauna (it was not a particularly warm day)

I kept walking and eventually made my way back to Hiltl. Via Happy Cow, I had found a ton of vegan restaurants in Zurich, but I wanted more of the pakoras for dinner. I packed a to-go box with fried foods and dessert. If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t load an entire container with the mango mousse.

I walked back to the train station and bought weird flavors of Fisherman’s Friends and chocolates as gifts. The train ride back was far more crowded, but at least it was truly direct this time. There was a large family traveling in what appeared to be one of the first-class compartments. There weren’t enough seats in the compartment, so one of the men sat next to me. He kept leaving to talk with his family, but using an Evian bottle to save his seat. More than one person thought I was an asshole when I tried to pantomime someone was already sitting there, when clearly he wasn’t. Yay, language barriers! Eventually, when the guy came back, the older woman across the aisle quit glaring at me.

Back in Frankfurt I smoothly transferred to the U-Bahn and walked back to the hotel. I had walked nine miles and was ready to collapse, but I did it.

My day in Switzerland was as much about getting there as being there. I was uncomfortable at times and I think that is important. It is easy to avoid things that make you uncomfortable or that scare you, especially as you get older. Feeling vulnerable and unsure and still doing things that scare you is important. That considering “what’s the worst that will happen” and “what will I miss if I don’t do this” are opportunities. I also think that if more people put themselves in situations where they were surrounded by cultures other than their own, and simply listened, the world would be a better place.

Vegan Tips for Grand Cayman

*the trip was six months ago, but better late than never, right?

View from Sunset House

I wasn’t sure how vegan-friendly Grand Cayman would be and was pleasantly surprised. We tend to rent places with kitchenettes and this trip was no different. We stayed at Eldemire’s Tropical Island Inn, a lovely spot south of George Town. I’ve gotten adept at cooking with a couple of stove burners and a microwave. Plus, we got to repeatedly dine with the local chickens who lived right outside the room.

Our first night on the island, we had dinner at Sunset House,  a short walk from the inn. There was a large open-air bar/restaurant overlooking the water. After a day of travel, it was a lovely spot to drink cider and eat some curry. They had a bunch of vegetarian and vegan menu options clearly marked on the menu.

Our first stop the next morning was the local supermarket to stock up on staples and a few meals. We went to Kirk Market. A few paces inside the store we found vegan haggis flavored chips. A strange, but auspicious start. Their selection rivaled any grocery store at home. We found plenty and enjoyed many meals at the picnic table outside our room.

Bread and Chocolate is an all-vegan café in George Town. We went there after our first scuba lesson. The menu was almost overwhelming. It all sounded delicious. Patrick got the French toast. I ordered the tacos because I wanted to try the scotch bonnet aioli. They were quite good. Looking at the menu now, six months later, I am still second-guessing my choices and want to go back.

We arrived at Caymans Spirits before the doors opened. Thankfully, we were on vacation and doing a tasting and tour at 9am is thus magically acceptable. We enjoyed a variety of rum, vodka, and other spirits. Their Seven Fathoms Rum is aged just offshore, 42 feet below the surface. Travel tip – instead of always going out to drink, get a decent bottle of something local and enjoy it at your leisure.

Rackam’s is a great spot to sit by the water and drink (cider again) and eat homemade chips.  Diners can also snorkel right off their ladder and swim out to see the wreck of the Cali.

We only went out for dinner twice and the second time was at Southern Spice, an Indian restaurant in George Town. It was quietly elegant and the wait staff was knowledgeable about what dishes were vegan. I’m pretty sure I had a spicy channa masala. It sounds like something I’d do.

Overall, it was one of the most vegan-friendly spots we’ve found the Caribbean.

PS  – We still haven’t actually tried the haggis chips yet.

Nevermind Nirvana

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It was mid-day and Dave Grohl was slamming back his third or fourth miniature and the boat hadn’t even left the dock.

At least, he said he was Dave Grohl – from Park City, Utah – as he introduced himself and his wife to the newlyweds seated next to them. For the third time. He looked a hard 50, with thinning, shoulder-length hair draped over his vintage Pearl Jam t-shirt that, when juxtaposed with a scattering of sunbaked tattoos, that added to an overall lack of mystique. My guess was that they really did hail from Park City, and that his name may have even been Dave Grohl, though he was the only one who seemed convinced that he had once laid down the backbeat as one-third of Nirvana.

He was most certainly drinking Fireball, though, and too much, too fast; the expression on his wife’s face confirmed it, as her failing efforts to sequester Dave from the rest of the passengers and crew were matched only by her own interest in fading into the farthest nook possible.

“I used to own a bar,” said Dave. “That didn’t work out so well.” He said it without a hint of irony.

The charter’s captain fired up the engine, and after the obligatory briefing about lifejackets and the delicate mechanics of the marine head, the deckhands cast off the mooring lines and we slowly made our way out of the lagoon, past mangroves full of iguanas basking listlessly in the tropical sun.

We and perhaps two dozen others were bound for Stingray City, cited as a must-see attraction by virtually every Top-10-Things-to-Do-on-Grand-Cayman list we had read. And for good reason. On any given day, scores of southern stingrays converge on the warm, impossibly blue shallows of this series of sandbars near the mouth of the island’s North Sound. At one time, they were drawn to the spot by fishermen who cast the unwanted scraps from their catches overboard. Today, the rays still gather on the bank to feed, but now at the hands of the dozens of charter boats – including Captain Marvin’s, one of Grand Cayman’s oldest and most reputable snorkel charters, which operates several boats daily, including the one we now found ourselves aboard.

Once moored, the boat’s crew ushered us into the water, where we were free to swim with the rays. They are magnificent, utterly singular creatures that appear almost alien as they “fly” past you. There were plenty of photo ops, and even the chance to kiss a stingray “for good luck” before we weighed anchor and headed for the nearby “Coral Gardens” for a bit of snorkeling amidst the fire corals, sea fans, and fish. There, for the second time in our roughly 15 years of snorkeling together, we witnessed a moray eel, who with silent precision wriggled all six feet of his bright green body into a well-suited nook at the base of a coral head. The coral on Grand Cayman was the healthiest of any we had seen in years, vibrant and teeming with life. No wonder many of the locals we spoke with voiced concerned dismay over the environmental impact of a proposed cruise ship terminal.

Snorkeling is a revelatory experience, providing the terrestrial biped a “bird’s eye view” of a strange and silent world to which the very best aquarium cannot remotely compare. Never forsake an opportunity to behold wildlife in its natural setting, whether on land or at sea – even aboard a hotel shuttle bus.

Truth was, we had such a great experience with Captain Marvin’s that I had totally forgotten about Dave Grohl from Park City – at least until we returned to port, where we found ourselves two seats removed from Mr. Fireball aboard the hotel shuttle bus. We watched as polite passengers tried to disengage him in mute horror. From the other side of the bus his wife made half-hearted attempts to discourage his efforts to engage the lone middle-aged woman seated between us in conversation. The woman’s accent, poise, and improbable tolerance for drunken Americans suggested that she was European and a professional, perhaps associated with George Town’s renowned banking industry.

“Where are you from? We’re from Park City, Utah.”

“St. Helena,” she replied. “I’m the attorney general.”

“Oh!” said Mrs. Grohl. “My husband is a recovering lawyer.”

“I’m not a recovering anything,” slurred Dave. “Saint what?”

“St. Helena,” the woman said. “It’s a little island in the middle of the South Atlantic, where Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile.”

“We’re from Park City,” he said, again.

“Utah,” noted Mrs. Grohl. The bus pulled up to its first stop, freeing several from the group before resuming its route.

“And where is your husband?” asked Dave.

Without flinching, the woman politely replied, “He’s dead.”

Mrs. Grohl closed her eyes and sank back into her seat as even Dave himself seemed to realize he’d overplayed his hand, if not exactly how.

“I’m so sorry,” said Mrs. Grohl.

The woman smiled. “It’s alright, thank you.”

“We’re going to Rackam’s for dinner and drinks,” said Dave. “You should join us.”

“I would love to, but I simply cahnt,” replied the woman, mother Britain manifest in her speech.

Dave perked up. “Cahnts? I just love cahnts!” Mrs. Grohl sank ever further into her seat.

“Next stop, Comfort Suites,” the driver announced.

“Keith Richards,” blurted Dave.

Both women looked at him incredulously. “What?”

“Keith Richards,” he reiterated. “You ever want a husband who won’t die on you, you should marry Keith Richards. He’s gonna live forever.”

The bus pulled to a stop. “Comfort Suites,” announced the driver.

“Who the hell stays at Comfort Suites?” Dave wondered aloud, just as St. Helena rose from her seat, gathered her things, and headed for the bus door.

Now, it was Dave who was incredulous. “Wait – you’re staying at Comfort Suites?” But she was already gone.

Mrs. Grohl sighed with relief, but then Dave closed the gap by sliding into the now-vacant seat next to me. We had done our best to remain expressionless throughout the bus ride, intent on bearing witness without actively participating, unable to look at one another for fear of releasing the pent up laughter. Mrs. Grohl, too, had preferred it that way, seeming to fear what we, above all others, might do if Dave attempted to interact, which was just fine by us.

“Jesus Christ, you’ve got some hairy legs,” Dave said, stroking my calf. “Like a damned yeti.”

Flora and Fauna of Grand Cayman

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Wild chickens at the beach
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Stingrays
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Curious stingray
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Sea rod and grunts
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Moray eel
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I assume this is some kind of green lacewing. Let me know if I’m wrong.
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Cuban tree frog
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Something cool at Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park
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Lionfish (invasive, but still amazing looking)
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Barrel sponge and blue striped grunt
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Spot winged comb jellyfish
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Sea fans and a snapper?
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Flamingo tongue snail
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Feather dusters
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Lionfish (invasive, but still amazing looking)
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Yellowhead Wrasse
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Green iguana
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Grunts, sea fans, sea rod, and more
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Warbler?
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Warbler?
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Flicker
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Bananaquit
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Wild orchid
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Cayman blue-throated anole
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Blue iguana (endangered)
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Blue iguana (endangered)
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Rooster in the center of George Town
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Plover
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Cuban bullfinch
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Cuban parrot
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Cuban parrot
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Loggerhead kingbird
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Cayman blue-throated anole
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Green iguana in mangroves
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Cayman black racer
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Beach chickens
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Hogfish
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Trunkfish
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Queen triggerfish and brain coral

From Tourist to Local

It wasn’t until I was 35 feet below the surface that I realized I had only ever been a tourist. I love the ocean. I truly love being enveloped by the water. One of my favorite sensations is to be part of a school of fish. I love when they are as curious about me as I am of them. Or at least not afraid of me. I hate when they dart away in fear. Some days, all I want to do is glide among them in that tranquil place as waves rock my body.

About 10 years ago, I tried scuba diving. A friend’s brother provided a free lesson in her pool. Scuba isn’t cheap, which had long been a barrier. The breathing and buoyancy parts came easy, but I couldn’t get my ears to equalize. Neither could WPT. I assumed I wouldn’t be able to go deeper than the 8-10 feet I managed freediving while snorkeling. WPT had trouble doing even that. I spent the next decade bobbing along on the surface of the water, my need for oxygen and assumptions about my ears keeping me from going any deeper.

WPT and I arrived on Grand Cayman with only the loosest of agendas. We didn’t think we’d make it there, so why plan or make reservations when we expected a last minute cancellation? At the motel, we looked at brochures and I spotted a “discover scuba” course for $105 a person. If we were ever going to try to scuba, Grand Cayman seemed to be the place to do it. At worst, our ears would be in too much pain, but at least we would know for sure and only be out $200 bucks (other similar options were often $200 a person).

Alex teaching WPT how to equalize his ears
Touching down
Figuring out buoyancy

We arrived at Divers Down in the capital of George Town early the next morning and met our instructor, Alex. Safety instructions in a French accent are somehow more reassuring. She taught us basic dive sign language and we were in the water within minutes. We tried out the rebreathers and she worked on getting us weighted for neutral buoyancy. We were soon standing on the ocean floor. She guided us around the Wreck of the Cali, a cargo ship that had the misfortune of springing a leak while carrying a load of rice. It was sunk in the George Town harbor some 80 years ago and now provides an excellent scuba spot. Alex led us around the wreck and a small patch reef.

Wreck of the Cali
WPT diving the Wreck of the Cali
DGB diving the Wreck of the Cali

With Alex’s calm guidance, we each learned to equalize our ears. We soon began to use our breathing to control our accent and decent. She kept close watch over us and helped when we needed it. It wasn’t nearly enough time.

Everything is cool

Back on dry land, Alex said we were naturals and that we were better than a lot of the certified divers that visit the island. She remarked at how comfortable we were and had good natural buoyancy. I asked about other dive options and she said she would approve us for a supervised boat dive, up to about 35 feet deep.

We arrived far too early the next afternoon. We went and hung out with chickens across the street until it was time to go out. We had asked that Alex be our instructor again.

Alex and WPT

There are rules underwater that apply to everyday life. It is easy to panic and want go to the surface. It is dangerous to react that way. Stop and think before you react. You need to control your breathing or you will lose your balance, or worse. When you start to become too buoyant, the answer is as easy as breathing. In. Out. In. Out. Calm. The. Fuck. Down. She taught us the sign for that, and it works on land, too. Pay attention all around you, not just what is in front of you. Keep an eye on one another.

DGB at home

She took us 35 feet down. Then 40. And, later, 50. I was ecstatic. She later told us we were so natural in the water that she knew we would be fine. At some point, as we came through a cut in the rock formation and I looked up and saw fish swimming above me. I felt a level of being at peace and, oddly, at home. It was then I realized that, as a snorkeler, I had only ever been a tourist, but as a diver, I felt like a local. I felt like I belonged there.

How to Meet Chicks at the Beach

By December, WPT and I were cold, exhausted, and burning out. We anticipated being colder, more exhausted, and possibly incinerated by February, so we asked ourselves some basic questions –

1) How many frequent flyer points do we have?

2) Where does Southwest fly?

3) Where is it warm?

4) Where can we fishwatch (like birdwatching, but underwater)?

We decided on Grand Cayman. Our trip was threatened by an ice/snow/rain storm, but after fleeing Baltimore 12 hours ahead of schedule, we landed at Owen Roberts International Airport the following day.

Car rental chickens

After a smooth exit from the airport, we walked outside into the bright midday sun and the first thing I saw was a poinciana tree (my favorite tree) and a chicken (my favorite bird). We were already off to a good start. We walked across the street to the car rental agency where more chickens greeted us. Ten minutes into the trip and already I loved it there.

Breakfast with John

When we arrived at Eldemire’s Tropical Island Inn, we were given a thorough introduction to the guest house and area by Bob, the resident dive instructor. He never mentioned the earplugs on the nightside table. I suspected I knew the answer. About 3am, my suspicions were confirmed. Roosters. A lot of them. I lay there, fan blades stirring the otherwise still night air, listening to the chorus that faded into the distance before resuming right outside our window. I loved it.

Majestic John

I met John after sunrise. I don’t know his real name, he just looked like a John to me. John was a majestic rooster with a big, bold comb and glossy iridescent tail feathers. I shared my breakfast with him. It was only later that I noticed he was missing most of the toes on one of his feet. I ignored WPT when he began calling him Hoppin’ John.

Georgetown chickens

We went to the grocery store early that morning and I bought John and his friends grapes and sunflower seeds. He also enjoyed some leftover spaghetti and other assorted foods we shared with him.

Smith’s Cove chickens

We found chickens just about everywhere we went on the island. Smith’s Cove was a public beach a short walk from the guest house. There, the chickens were camouflaged amid the sea grapes and other shoreline trees. There were small families within larger clans. I’m guessing I saw at least 30-40 birds at that beach.

Mother and chicks
Chicken family

We went to Smith’s Cove each day and each day we bought them treats. I noticed one particular hen with three small chicks. I watched as the mother hen would take grapes and pass them out to the chicks, only taking one for herself once they each had one to eat. She did this repeatedly. She protected them if any of the other birds got too close and she eyed us suspiciously. She was a very good mother. I also noticed one rooster was allowed near her and the chicks. I enjoy watching how animals behave and the rules of their societies. By the last day of the trip, she knew who we were and that we came bearing treats.

Hand-feeding grapes
Keeping an eye on us
Chicks at the beach
Mother chicken

I’ve now added to the list of trip requirements –

5) Where can we chickenwatch?

Georgetown rooster

To the Bat Cave!

On the way to the hotel, we passed a road sign that pointed to “The Caves.” There was a small, unassuming parking lot and a stone chair, but not much else. We passed the spot at least 5-6 times before we finally pulled over to explore. This unassuming spot is a naturalist’s delight.

There are multiple openings to what was once a sea cave, allowing visitors to approach from above or below and once inside the mouth of the cave you can adjust to the relative darkness. It isn’t safe or suggested that you go far into the cave, but from the visible openings, you can see hundreds (thousands) of indigenous buffy flower bats. There were so delightful we went back a second time.

Used to human interlopers, they ignored us as they slept, squeaked, had sex, ate mosquitoes, and flew around the cave.

Totally worth a stop along the coast road.

You’ll find them near here: https://goo.gl/maps/mZdDMCZY3K52