2008/04/28

Giant Mice Infest Tokyo!

After 25 years, the city has gotten used to them, some people even like them.

April 15th, Tokyo Disneyland Celebrated its 25th Anniversary, so special events are planned throughout the year.

We learned a few weeks ago that K had to work on Sunday the 20th, and was given a make up holiday on the 23rd. She had not visited Disneyland in about 10 years, and I much longer than that (and never the Tokyo park), so I offered to take her.

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We rose early to catch the 7:45 a.m. highway express bus from neighboring Itako City. From there, depending on traffic, it is only a 50 minute ride to Tokyo Disneyland, which, I should explain is not really in Tokyo. It is actually in Urayasu City, Chiba Prefecture. (It is close, though, and Tokyo is obviously the more marketable name with global recognition.) Due to traffic near the park, it took us 90 minutes.

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Reclining seats, an elevated view of the countryside or chance to nap, and no driving hassles - the highway bus is a great way to travel in Japan.


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I like the look of this retro bus - the Disney Resort Cruiser. It's a free shuttle between the area's resorts and Disneyland and the adjoining park, DisneySea.


As one might expect, Tokyo Disneyland is laid out differently than the original park in Anaheim, California. There is no Matterhorn or submarine ride, but some other rides are unique to Tokyo. Main Street shopping area is covered by a glass canopy done in a style that does not detract from the 19th century architecture.

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The main street architecture is scaled for pedestrian use and is intended to reassure visitors as they enter the park that this a safe, friendly place. An article on the National Building Museum website titled "The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing the Disney Theme Parks" relates that "...Disney saw the park as a tacit critique of the chaotic American city and the meandering post-war suburbs that were ruled by the automobile." and "Walt Disney based Main Street on his own memories of turn-of-the-century Marceline, Missouri. It is a child's-eye-view of a perfect place - always clean, safe, and bright, its windows filled with delights. Unlike the new suburban streets of the 1950s, it was a pedestrian environment, geared to the pace of a stroll and scaled for comfort. The apparent height of the buildings is an illusion engineered through the set-designer's forced perspective: while main floors are almost life size, second and third stories are smaller, creating the impression of tallness in buildings of modest, domestic height. This toytown scale - impossible in the real world - gives adults the same feeling of mastery and control that children feel when playing with dollhouses or miniature villages or a model-train layout."

Walt Disney, rather than being behind the times in this regard was really way ahead of his time. Suburbia has proved to be unsustainable and a social and environmental disaster. As James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Geography of Nowhere" puts it, "the greatest mis-allocation of wealth in history". There is now a movement in planning and architecture called "New Urbanism" which designs towns and cities to be people friendly, walkable spaces, much like Walt's Main Streets, if with a more modern appearance.

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Soon after we arrived a brass band appeared and wowed visitors with an excellent jazz performance. The trombones were awesome.


I was surprised and delighted to find that the park was not at all crowded. It wasn't a holiday, it was mid-week, and a week ahead of the major vacation period in Japan known as Golden Week. As a result, official estimated waiting times for rides were anywhere from 10 minutes to 70 minutes and even those estimates were overstated. We were able to get on a LOT of rides and still have plenty of time to explore, shop, and have a leisurely lunch and dinner. K was thrilled because during her past visits, the place was so mobbed that she could only get on a a couple of rides and had no time for slower paced activities like Tom Sawyer's Island, or the Western River Railroad.

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The first order of 'business' was to do a bit of gift shopping and store the bags in a locker, which are located near the entrance. That out of the way, we headed for Fantasy Land, checking out the castle on the way. The castle at Tokyo is Cinderella's, whereas the original one in Anaheim is Sleeping Beauty's. The Tokyo one is the same design as that of Walt Disney World in Florida and in Hong Kong. This one is painted in different colors than the other two. It is also big. Sleeping Beauty's Castle in Anaheim is 77 feet (23.5 meters) tall, Cinderella's Castle is 189 feet (54.5 meters) high. So, it's pretty awe in-"spire"-ing. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)



The first ride of the day was to be The Haunted Mansion. We only had to wait in line about 30 minutes. I got caught up in trying to take a picture of Pluto and Donald on a passing float and was passed up by a group of school girls. I nearly lost my place in line and didn't get the picture. The voice that narrates the story of the Haunted Mansion is even spookier in Japanese than it is in English - no translation needed. Must be due to Japan's long tradition of telling tales of ghosts, monsters, and changelings. The ride itself is as I remembered it - good fun.

The next ride was one I had read rave reviews about while researching what to do at Tokyo Disneyland. Good thing I had, as I would never have chosen this one otherwise, and it turned out to be, IMO, the best ride of the day. "Pooh's Hunny Hunt". Really.

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On this ride, you sit in a hunny (Pooh's spelling) bucket, with two or three people on a slightly elevated rear seat, and two in front. The coolest thing is that the buckets are not on a track. A computer system uses an LPS (local positioning system) to keep track of each car. The patented system works by directional data being relayed from a master control computer directly to each individual honey pot car through a complicated matrix embedded in the floor. What this means is that they follow each other through connecting tunnels into large rooms with smooth floors, where the buckets spread out and zoom around from one scene to another within the room - they accelerate, reverse, and spin around to give riders a view of each feature, before once again going single file to the next room. Each room is full of effects and animatronics (which are excellent), and tells a part of the story. It's brilliant, works like magic, and it was reportedly so expensive to build that Michael Eisner, when head of Disney, chose not to spend the money on it and opted for a standard tame (yawn) Winnie the Pooh ride. Only Tokyo has Pooh's Hunny Hunt.

One really great effect is a room where you see Tigger come out and start to bounce up and down. As he does, the entire floor of the room bounces up and down, along with the buckets and of course you! Mind your camera and eyeglasses or you might lose them. The final room is like a big dance hall with an giant anamatronic dance band at one end. The honey pots twirl around the room (not too fast) as if dancing and a bucket full of animatronic characters joins fun. Your honey pot will zoom to the sides here and there, where you will see some fun things and a surprise or two (like a hunny bucket canon that goes off in your face with a blast of air). It's a great ride - like an "E ticket" ride for kids that adults will love too.

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Watching Pooh bear get fat on honey made this Panda hungry, so we went over to dine with royalty - The King and Queen of Hearts. The food was good, but as you might expect, expensive. Actually, if we had stuck with the entree and a drink we would have been OK, but we made the mistake of loading up our trays with rice, salad, soup, etc. and before I knew it - cha-ching! - about $52 was gone from my wallet. Oh well, it was a banquet fit for a Queen after all.

We enjoyed our lunch in spite of the chorus of crying little kids in the booths across from us. Japan is supposedly in a population decline, but you'd never know it from the number of toddlers in strollers at Disneyland. Speaking of demographics, with Japan's population aging, Tokyo Disneyland has made a smart move by offering heavily discounted annual passes for people 60 or over. I told K to "zip it" when she started reading to me about the "Seniors" discount pass at the gate. I'm NOT there yet.

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We went over to Splash Mountain and got fast pass which would allow us to come back later and not have to wait in line. Then, almost without waiting, we boarded the Mark Twain river boat, something K had never had time to do. The scenery on Tom Sawyer's Island intrigued her, and the canoes looked fun too. We took the raft over to the island and had fun exploring the caves, fort, and tree house.

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From Tom Sawyer's Island, we could see where the canoes launched from. Unfortunately it was quite a walk from where we would come ashore on the raft, so we headed for Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster instead. The wait was about 40 minutes or so and I enjoyed looking over the authentic antique mining equipment (some of it made in Minnesota and Colorado) that is displayed throughout the building. Then it was white knuckle time...
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Loads of high school kids guaranteed a scream filled ride. K found it scarier than she had remembered from a decade ago. I hadn't ridden it in a lot longer and didn't find it scary at all, just "rough" or "turbulent" as the warning signs call it. Age certainly does change one's perceptions. That said, it was still fun, and I liked waving to the people waiting in line as we rounded curves in front of them.

I felt like I'd been riding in a tumble dryer after that, so we did some more shopping for my granddaughters. I wanted to take my jacket and the gifts down to the lockers so I didn't have to carry them around the rest of the day. The main street was blocked for yet another parade which made the locker plan complicated. Our feet needed a rest and I had encouraged K to give the Jungle Cruise a try, as it was one of the original rides when Disneyland opened in 1955 and is fun. As we waited to board the boat, I commented on how they looked like the African Queen in the Bogart and Hepburn film. K asked if we'd have a torpedo on board. (I decided it safer not to call K "old girl" like Bogart did Hepburn). The ride was relaxing, the old style animatronics entertaining and the patter of silly jokes by the operator "punny".

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Next we boarded the Western River Railroad for a ride. In Anaheim, the train circles the entire park, but in Tokyo it circles about half the park - Adventure Land, Western Land, and Critter Country - and takes about 15 minutes. It also includes a dark section with a diorama of dinosaurs. There is only one station because Japanese rail regulations stipulate that if a train has more than one stop, it comes under a whole host of rules, including the requirement to have a fixed timetable. Anyway, there are three trains, each of which are pulled by a beautiful steam engine named for a US river - Colorado, Missouri, and Rio Grande.

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Our feet somewhat rested, I took the baggage to a locker and we got in line for Pirates of the Caribbean. The line was just 20 minutes long. I had not been on this since long before the movie came out, and did not know that they had modified the ride to incorporate elements of the movie. I always liked this ride, and think they did a good job with the new version. The core of it is the same, but there are added elements done with high tech illusions and newer animatronics that add to it. The animatronic Jack Sparrow at the end of the ride is very well done.

As we exited the ride and were heading toward a refreshment stand, who should be bump into but Jack Sparrow himself. Well, a Disney cast member actually, who was staggering down the street, mobbed by people (mostly women), and doing an excellent impression of the character. (Makes one wonder why Johnny Depp gets paid so much.) I ran ahead of him and got this shot...
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He then walked up to me, shook my hand, and asked, "and how are you today, sir?" He even sounded like Johnny Depp.

It was getting on in the day and after a snack we went over to Tomorrow Land for the final rides of our day. A performance was starting - Mickey and the crew on a big float set to music, so we watched that first.



We had decided to skip "Toon Town" this trip. After Big Thunder Mountain, K was not interested in riding Space Mountain, so we opted for more subdued, but still fun, rides.

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Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters was sort of fun. It's like playing an arcade game from the inside. I tried to take a picture of Buzz - a full size robot with 3D holographic face - at the start of the ride, but he wouldn't hold still :) As you walk past him on the way to board the cars, he gives a talk about the attack of some space alien robots which you are to help him fend off. The cars are typical 2 seat ones on a track, but they are equipped with two laser hand guns (real lasers) with which to shoot at special targets on the invading robots. If your laser hits the target it flashes, as does a light on your gun, and a digital scoreboards on your car keep track of points. Entertaining, but I was glad I didn't wait longer than 20 minutes to get in.

We wanted to catch the 7:05 pm bus for home as there wouldn't be another for two hours, so we had just enough time for one more ride.

Directly across the street from Buzz is "Micro Adventure", a 3D-plus experience based on the "Honey I Shrank the Kids" and "Honey, I Blew Up the Kids" movies. You sit in a theater with polarized 3D glasses on (and headset if you want to hear it in English or Chinese). In the course of the show you some see things get shrunk, including you, and others blown up (enlarged). It offers some really excellent 3D effects with things appearing to come out of the screen and right up to within a foot of your face. Everyone experiences it the same way as if the object, or animal, is singling you out. The only problem is that after the first couple of times they do that, you know what to expect and it loses its surprise value. They add other effects as well, such as shaking the entire theater, a simulation of mice running under the seats brushing up against your legs as they go by, and a spray of mist in your face when a giant dog sneezes on you...ewww.

Well, it was almost time to go. We weren't hungry, but we would not be getting home until about 8:30 pm, so we stopped to have a sandwich at the Sweetheart Cafe. This time the price wasn't as bad - I had shrimp and smoked salmon and K had pastrami and 'something or other' on a roll for about 450 yen ($4.50) each.

If you've come along this far, you may have caught the fact that we never went back to ride Splash Mountain. So much to see, so little time.

We don't remember the bus ride home - we slept the whole way. Momo the Wonder Dog was super happy to see us - we got the royal tail wagging, supplicating greeting - and, and of course, she was equally happy to be served her late dinner.

For someone who wasn't all that enthusiastic about going in the first place, I really enjoyed it. Perhaps we'll go again some time, but first, we'll check out DisneySea...

2008/04/15

Can I Come Along?

by Momo the Wonder Dog

Some dogs get to go along when their humans go off on a bicycle.



















I get left behind.

Pandabonium says: "Momo, you know just as well as I do that you would never get into a bag or anything that restricted your movement. And you've got to admit that the Japanese dog in the center picture is not acting very safe. Finally, when I go out on my bike, I usually come home loaded down with groceries or gardening supplies, and there simply isn't room for you. So, be honest. Wouldn't you rather stay home and watch people go by, and birds come into the yard, and lay around in the shade? You get to go for two walks a day and often get to run off the leash. Better than being stuffed into a bag, don't you think?"

Momo says: "Well, I guess so. It does seem like you are gone a long time and I might get bored if couldn't walk around. I guess I just envy your freedom sometimes."

Picture 1 - Velorution
Picture 2- Takato Marui
Picture 3 - Face Hunter



2008/04/10

Bitter Sweet Endings - 40 Years Ago Today

Not all stories have fairy tale endings. For cultural reasons, most of us grow up expecting such, reinforced by books, movies and TV programs where all conflicts are solved in 30 or 60 minutes. Much of religion is based on the promise of some kind of salvation or rescue or happy ending afterlife. (I'm not knocking anyone's personal beliefs, just making an observation.) Perhaps that is why most people tend to filter out news that doesn't fit their "happily-ever-after" paradigm or live in constant denial of ongoing problems and injustices that go on all around them.

Some stories have both a happy and a sad ending. That is reality. That is life. Some philosophies/religions encourage people to embrace things as they are. Perhaps there is value in that. A case in point...

On this day in 1968, a young woman of 19, Katherine McGibbon of Queensland, New Zealand, was making passage on the beautiful new ferry, the TEV Wahine.


Only two years into service with the Lyttelton-Wellington line, the Wahine was making its way toward the Capitol of New Zealand, Wellington. At 488 feet, she was, at the time, the largest roll on/roll off ship in the world and could carry 950 passengers and 200 cars. I can say "she" not only because of maritime custom, but because the word "wahine" (wah-hee-neh) is Polynesian for "woman".

At 5 am she was hit by a hurricane. The hurricane was actually two storms that had merged and formed one of New Zealand's worst storms, with winds of over 100 knots (115 mph). The ship's radar was knocked out and she wandered off course and struck the Barret's Reef, damaging her steering. Soon, she would not answer the helm at all and then as wind and waves pushed her further into the reef, lost the starboard propeller and propulsion from the port engine as well. Dead in the water and at the mercy of the storm, the Wahine was pushed over the reef, the ship's anchors were dragging and a tug valiantly tried, but failed, to get a line to her and tow her to safety. It was decided to ride out the storm right there (was there any other choice?).

Roll on/roll off, or "RoRo" ferries, have an Achilles heel - the car deck. In calm seas, the car deck is above the water line, but are often open at the stern, and in order to allow easy loading and off loading of vehicles, they do not have bulkheads or compartments. If water gets into that deck it is free to slosh about, and the weight of the water plus the location above the center of gravity, can cause the ship to list heavily to one side or the other. This is one reason that car ferries are one of the more dangerous means of transport. About one in the afternoon, this was the fate of the Wahine. As the stormy sea sent water through the open stern into her car deck, she rolled onto her starboard side and within thirty minutes was in danger of capsizing. The captain ordered the 734 passengers and crew to abandon ship.

Most of the passengers got into life boats and made it to shore. 51 people, mostly those who tried to swim to land, died. When the order came to abandon ship, Katherine McGibbon, who did not know how to swim at the time, jumped into the water. Luckily for her, a Fijian man, Eroni Vaceucau, was there to save her. She met Vaceucau on the deck and he told her to follow him into the sea. However, she had not put her life jacket on properly and it flipped over her head. He pulled her into a rubber boat and took charge, telling the ten other passengers where to sit to keep the boat stable and showing them how to get the boat safely to shore. According to Katherine McGibbon (now Kate Watson) "Other dinghy's around us capsized and people died in the process but through his guidance we got back to shore. As we got out he went back into the treacherous seas and pulled out a young boy who was sitting on a rock." Newspapers of the time carried stories about his efforts and he was given special mention in the board of inquiry for his heroism.

Katherine McGibbon (Kate Watson) was sorry that she never got to thank the man who saved her life that day. Today, Wellington Museum will commemorate the disaster. Last week national television in New Zealand featured shots of the young Eroni and Ms MacGibbon.

Ms Watson, now an artist, had been searching recently for Mr Vaceucau after not seeing him again, and had released the photo of the two on the beach in hopes of finding him. She knew him only as Eroni Vaceucau, but his full title is Ratu Eroni Vaceucau - "Ratu" means "chief" in Fijian. A chiefly man from a chiefly family.

Last night, in a phone call to Suva, she learned that he died five years ago.

"If I had found him after the incident I would have flown all the way to Fiji just to say thank you," she told the Fiji Times. "I feel really sad about this (his death). I feel devastated. I hoped and prayed that he was still alive so that I could say thank you."


The ferry "Maori" passes the capsized "Wahine" in 1968


For more about this poignant story, see the blog "Babasiga".

Insider Briefing

"Try to get it right this time, David: It's Who's on first, What's on Second,
and I Don't Know's on Third."

You've heard or read the "official" line being offered up to the US Senate by Army Gen. David Petraeus and US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.

Now get an honest briefing on what is going on in Iraq and Iran from an "insider's insider" - Wayne White, top middle east analyst, formerly with the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Wayne spent 30 years with the State Department focusing on Middle East policy. He is now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.

Wayne was interviewed by George Kenney of Electric Politics (who offers up the best political/philosophical podcasts on the web IMO). Running time - 1 hour 19 minutes. Give a listen:



George Kenney was born in Algiers in 1956, during the battle of Algiers, to a US foreign service family, and grew up in the states, in Africa and in Europe. He has an MA in Economics from the University of Chicago. George joined the foreign service and was a tenured, mid-level career officer, serving as Yugoslav desk officer at the State Department headquarters in DC, when he resigned his commission in 1991 over US policy towards the Yugoslav conflict. He has been consultant in residence at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, published some 60 articles in the mainstream press, and done TV and radio as well. His activities were interrupted by an inherited blood disorder so his focus these days is his website "Electric Politcs". He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife Sharon, an ordained UCC minister. I find his interviewing technique refreshingly honest and his questions insightful.

2008/04/08

Aloha to Aloha


Aloha Airlines, which has served Hawaii since 1946, has called it quits as of March 31st, leaving some passengers stranded. They blame recent competition from new rival GO! Airlines for their demise and also site high fuel costs, but Aloha was in financial trouble long before Go! entered the market. In fact the parent company of Go!, Mesa Airlines, considered buying either the bankrupt Aloha Airlines or it's major competitor, the also bankrupt Hawaiian Airlines, before ultimately deciding to start their own service.

Ultimately, the rising cost of fuel is at the root of airline problems today. ATA and Skybus also threw in the towel last week. It won't get any better folks, as rising world demand and flat oil production will continue to drive fuel prices up. No, the mythical "hydrogen economy" and corn or switchgrass ethanol aren't going to allow the fossil fuel party to go on either, no matter what soothing words or subsidies to big business (pork) the politicians may offer. If you aren't hip to that fact yet, please visit one my "Get Real" links such as The Oil Drum, and get up to speed.


Anyway, Aloha to Aloha Airlines. I hope Hawaiian and Go! can take up the slack for now so that Hawaii residents and the tourists who their economy depends on can continue to travel at least a while longer.

2008/04/03

Lone Star Triathlon

Congratulations to my niece, Alison, who participated in the Lone Star Triathlon Festival on Galveston Island, Texas last weekend.

The "half iron" event included a 1.2 mile swim from the beach, 56 miles bicycle race along Galveston's sea wall (in 10 - 15 mph cross winds as it happened), and 13.1 mile run ending at Moody Gardens. (No, Moody Gardens are not named after the Moody Minstrel.)

Here's Alison on her bike - average speed over the 56 mile course: 19 mph

Alison placed 3rd in her group and 12th overall. Well done, Ali!

In June, she will be competing in the "Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon". That event starts with a 1.5 mile swim from Alcatraz Island to shore in the frigid waters of San Fransisco Bay, followed by an 18 mile bike race, and an 8 mile run along the rugged trails of the Golden Gate Recreation Area.

2008/04/01

Car Transportation Problems Solved!



Production has already begun on a car that will replace those of the internal combustion engine (ICE) variety. Using a zinc-air fuel cell, with fully recyclable zinc, the cars are being produced under joint agreement between GM, Toyota, Tata (of India), and SAIC (of China). The companies have been working together behind the scenes to address the issues of peak oil and climate change, both of which, they all now publicly admit, threaten the the very existence of their industry.

Toyota CEO Katsuaki Watanabe was surrounded by reporters after he spoke in Nagoya, Japan, detailing the plan.

Through an accelerated buy-back system and licensing of the new technology with other car makers, the companies say they will be able to replace half the existing fleet of ICE cars within just the next eight years. Other technologies, such as all electric and hybrid vehicles will also continue to be developed and freely compete with the fuel cell vehicles, the focus being to totally phase out ICE engined cars.


The zinc-air fuel cells produce a non-toxic byproduct, zinc oxide, a sort of viscous creamy white substance, which can be recycled into new zinc fuel pellets using electrolysis and walnut oil. Stanford University labs have developed a catalyst for use in the systems – from theobroma cacau – basically cocoa solids. Sufficient quantities of zinc are readily available, and since it is recycled, there will be no on going need for ever increasing quantities. The amount of cocoa solids and walnut oil will require some expansion of these agricultural products, but are not expected to put a strain on food prices, as has ethanol.

Remarkably, the zinc-air fuel cell cars produce no greenhouse gases. Instead, as they motor along, out the back, on a little tray, they leave a row of small, thick white pellets, surrounded by a chocolate whirl with a walnut on the top.

(April Fools)

A Downside To Affordable Air Travel

The Moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) are world famous. Most of the 887 known giant statues were carved from mostly between circa 1250 CE and 1500 CE and have been the subject of much curiosity and speculation in the outside world.

Recently a visitor from Finland, one Marko Kulju (26), was seen chipping off a piece of the face and earlobe from one of the Moai! A native Rapanui woman witnessed the desecration and police identified Kulju from the woman's description of one of his tattoos. Kulju faces a $19,000 fine and possible prison time.

As outrageous as this act was, it is not the only vandalism which has occurred on Rapa Nui in recent times. The Easter Island Foundation and Pacific Institute
lists several incidents such as scraping paint off of cave paintings, carving a happy face on a Moai, spray painting graffiti on an ahu (platform), and many others. The perpetrators have come from Chile, Japan, Italy, England, Canada, and elsewhere, so being a "jerk" is not confined to any particular country or culture, and cheap air travel makes it possible for any jerk to go to the ends of the earth and leave their mark.

Rapa Nui needs the income it gets from tourism, but I hope that a way is found, and soon, to protect that island's heritage, as well as other significant archaeological and religious sites around the globe.

UPDATE
- The following appeared on the Radio Netherlands News website:

"Easter Island - A tourist from Finland has been fined 10,000 euros for damaging one of the famous moai stone statues on Easter Island in the Pacific. He also had to write a public apology and may not set foot on the island for the next three years.

"The Finnish tourist referred to the incident as 'the biggest mistake in his life'. He was arrested last month for taking a piece of an earlobe off one of the statues. He has now paid his fine and is going home."

[The incident was reportedly and accident, not a deliberate act of vandalism. Some of the moai are fragile - so should be climbed upon or even touched. Duh! Expensive lesson for this guy.]