St. Peter’s Tomb

St. Peter’s Tomb

I was very fortunate last week to be invited on a guided tour to see the necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica. A friend of mine had a special invitation from her bank to join a private tour and she invited me to accompany her.

I had always wanted to visit the necropolis underground as I knew that it was vast and not only contained the remains of St. Peter but had once been a burial ground and cemetery for both Christians and pagans. At one time, it was forbidden to bury bodies within the walls of the city and the Vatican is just outside the walls so it was a convenient location.

We started our tour inside the basilica. The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica is in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the structure. Just under the dome is the Baldacchino built by Bernini. Sadly, the four bronze columns were made from the bronze stripped from inside the Pantheon. It is monumental with a height akin to a seven storey building and occupies a very special spot as it stands directly above the tomb of St. Peter. We were told a lot about the monuments and decoration within the basilica. Even though I have been inside the basilica several times, I found out things that I had no idea about.

Our guide explained that during Roman times, the area around St. Peter’s was a hill called Monte Vaticano. It was countryside and the Emperor Caligula and his mother Agrippina had villas there. Nero had his race track (Circo) there as well. The Egyptian obelisk which now stands in the Piazza in front of the basilica, was once in the Circo Nero. Subsequently, after the decline of the Roman Empire, it became a burial ground first for early Christians and Peter was crucified and buried on the site. In the 3rd century AD, the Emperor Constantine legalized christianity and decided to build a church above the remains of St. Peter.

Our next stop was a small museum at the side of the basilica where we were shown a model of the original church which had a large cloister in front just behind the tower and a small church at the back where the altar was placed above the reputed remains of St. Peter. Since it was a hill and in order to create a flat surface for the church, earth was moved from the back to the front thus covering the cemetery and burial grounds.

There were various artifacts from the original church, carved stone slabs, columns and beautiful mosaics including the one showing the Emperor Constantine with the church in his hands.

Next we returned to the Baldacchino and went down the steps leading to the space below. Underneath the floor of the basilica are two levels as you can see in the drawing below. The one immediately under contains the tombs of the various Popes but below that again is where the original cemetery and burial ground was situated.

This area is lined with sarcophagi and rooms with burial niches. Only the rich could afford to have a room with niches for the whole extended family. Each room has a small staircase where the family would come and sit, on the day of the dead, and have a meal with their departed family.

According to belief, the remains of St. Peter were just wrapped in a shroud and buried. The Emperor Constantine had a marble tomb constructed and the remains were moved into it. This tomb is what lies below the present Baldacchino and the one in the original church. A small sumptious chapel has been built next to the tomb which is now behind a golden screen as you can see in the photo at the top. The altar below has a panel of the most beautiful bright green marble I have ever seen. Apparently, an analysis was carried out on the remains within the tomb and they are consistent with a sturdy man in his 60s which is around the age St. Peter would have been when he was crucified. Incidentally, he was crucified upside down as he didn’t feel worthy to be crucified as Christ was.

Residenza Paolo IV

The tour took over two hours as we had a very knowledgeable guide who gave us loads of information. By the time we were done, we were hungry and needed refreshment. This event had been organized by a private bank and in appropriate style, they took us to a residence next to St. Peter’s where there was a beautiful terrace and dining room overlooking the Bernini statues surrounding the Piazza with the dome of St. Peter’s in the background. We started out with drinks and appetizers on the terrace, it was a lovely sunny day. Then there was a three course lunch with wine. It was an amazing experience and I can’t believe I had the good fortune to be invited on this tour. Thank you Nicoletta.

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Nothing Much

I know I have featured the above flowering mimosa in previous years but Icouldnt resist another picture. January was a wet and horrible month here. It rained almost every day without fail which is unusual in Rome. It does rain in the winter but usually for a day or two and then the sun comes out. Last week, it stopped raining, the sun came out and this wonderful sight is to be seen on the way to the market. It uplifts my spirits everytime I see it and it`s worth the slight detour.

Life continues on in what might seem a mundane way except that I find it all interesting for the most part. I am teaching English in a small office which is part of an international network whose official language of communication is English. The needs and abilities of my students are all different and I do individual lessons but I don`t have a syllabus to cover and exams to set so it`s quite laid back.

Once a week I go to my flute lesson. Its a long journey and takes up a whole afternoon but I like my teacher so I don`t mind. I have to take the train from where I live to an area called Ostiense where I catch another train. There is a pyramid in Ostiense which was built in 12BC by a Roman nobleman called Caius Cestius. It was the fashion for things Egyptian at that time on account of Mark Anthony`s involvement with Cleopatra.
The pyramid is incorporated into the Aurelian walls so you see the fortifications alongside. It rises up between the walls and never fails to amaze me by its presence.

My teacher, Alessandra, lives on the coast just beyond Ostia. She lives in an apartment on the top of her building and has a large terrace outside her music room. As I struggle to get a decent sound out of my flute, we see the ocean and little birds hopping around outside. Last week, I persuaded Alessandra to hold the flute while I took a picture as it was a lovely day and I thought of putting in a picture in my next post. I had to promise not to show her in person as she was worried about not being properly attired! She is a professional musician who plays in several orchestras in Rome and just gives a few lessons on the side to supplement her income. Life is hard for musicians in Italy as there are no positions that offer any security.
I am very lucky to have her as a teacher and I think she just took me on as a favour to her friend, a singing teacher who sings in my choir. I got my job teaching English through another choir member who was looking for an English teacher to teach in her husband`s office. Life works in strange ways.

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An Unusual Event

The Carabinieri Horse Band

I arrived back in Rome yesterday to mild temperatures, about 10C today. Quite a change from Toronto where it was -10C when I left. I was meeting a friend for lunch on the other side of St. Peter`s Piazza from where I live so I had to cross the Piazza whereupon I came across an unusual sight. To my amazement, here were farm animals in cages in front of the Piazza.

There were cows, sheep, horses, pigs, goats, chickens, geese and rabbits. Just like what one sees at a County Fair in Canada. Across from them were farmers on horseback, presumably those engaged in herding livestock for a living.

The Farmers Association were giving out yellow balloons and baseball caps. There were also speeches being made but not a huge number of people to listen to them. I wondered what the point of all of this was.

It turned out that today, January 17 is the Feast Day of St. Anthony Abate who is the patron saint of farm and domestic animals, butchers, grave diggers and basketmakers. As if this wasn`t a strange enough combination, he also protects against skin diseases especially shingles, known as Fuoco di Sant`Antonio (fire of Saint Anthony) in Italy.

The animals are brought to St. Peter`s to be blessed in a symbolic gesture. At noon, the Carabinieri Horse Band headed an equine procession down the Via Concessione leading up to the Basilica where it stopped and played a number of tunes. It was all quite unexpected and unusual but it brightened up my day seeing farm animals in the middle of the city and yellow balloons flying in front of the dome of the basilica. Only in Italy would so much money be spent for a blessing.

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Spreading the Word

View From Train, Lakeshore East

Happy New Year to all my readers. I hope that the new year has started out well for all of you. Many people make New Year`s resolutions and in addition to dieting and stopping drinking for a bit, a couple of my friends have been talking about resolving to use as little plastic as possible. Having grown up in Kenya, during a time where we didn`t have a lot of plastic or things like clingwrap, the habit of re-using and recycling is ingrained. I take my own shopping bags to the grocery stores and I wash out strong plastic bags like ziplock bags, yoghurt containers etc and reuse them. I demand real cups in coffee shops and I rarely use disposable plates or cutlery. However, I’m sure there is room for improvement so I too am going to see how I can cut down.

A few days ago, I went to visit my sister in Ajax, a small town close to Toronto on Lake Ontario. The train goes along the lakeshore and it is a picturesque journey in part. It was the first sunny day practically since I arrived in Toronto and I enjoyed seeing the light on the water. When I got to Ajax, I noticed that people had put out their bins for recycling and organic garbage collection. The bins were neatly segregated as instructed and hopefully the contents will be recycled, but I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of it will end up in landfill. About two thirds of north America`s recyclables used to be bought by China for recycling but it has now stopped accepting various categories and this will likely be treated as garbage. We are producing more garbage than ever before.

Potash Mine, Russia
Image: Edward Burtynsky

A few days later, I saw an exhibition entitled `Anthropocene` by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The word Anthropocene signifies our current geological period in which humans are the primary cause of permanent planetary change. Burtynsky is noted for his documentaries and spectacular photographs which look like amazing landscapes from afar but when you look closely, you see that in fact it is a destruction of the landscape caused by human activity such as mining and manufacturing. The picture above shows a Potash Mine in Russia where machines tunnel underground leaving impressions that look like sea fossils, beautiful to look at but the damage underground is extensive. The exhibition highlighted the extreme changes that we humans have caused to the landscape, for example destruction of vast tracts of forest in order to raise cattle or cash crops and fracking for oil.

Dandora waste Site
Image: Edward Burtynsky

I was particularly saddened by a pictures of a garbage dump in Dandora, Nairobi. It didn`t exist when we lived there but now covers 30 acres. It was declared full in 2001 yet the site is still active and locals sort scrap by hand to sell it to recycling plants. The amount of plastic is horrifying. Plastic does not degrade and is piling up all over the world. There is an area reputed to be 1.6 million square km in the Pacific Ocean called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in which there are high quantities of plastic, 100kg per square km in the centre. There is also a North Atlantic Garbage patch. The UN Ocean Conference in 2017 estimated that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.

On that note dear readers, please try and cut down on your use of plastic and tell your friends. If anyone has tips for cutting down on plastic and reducing garbage, add them to the comments section so we can all benefit.

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Merry Christmas From Toronto

Those of you who read my blog on a regular basis might recognize the pictures as I posted a picture of the exact same Christmas tree two years ago. It is situated in one of the largest and most iconic shopping malls in Toronto, the Eaton Centre. Despite having seen this tree for the past three years, I still enjoy coming across it. It is reputed to be the tallest Christmas tree in Canada at 108 ft high. I’m not keen on fake trees but I think it would pain me to see a tree of that size cut down so that we can bring it indoors and put lights on it, so I’m glad it isn’t a live tree and I’m also glad that it’s being re-used.

Another thing I like about this mall are the huge reindeer at various spots as if watching the people scurrying around doing their Christmas shopping. It certainly makes the mall more cheerful. It`s not particularly cold in Toronto at the moment but it is dull and grey so it lifts the spirits coming across a giant reindeer in a shopping mall. There will be more lifting of spirits over the next couple of days as we celebrate Christmas. I will be celebrating with family and friends and I feel lucky to have this privilege.

Merry Christmas to all my readers and though it might not be merry for some, I wish you at least peace and goodwill from the people around you.

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Coming up to Christmas in Rome

Piazza San Pietro

Like everywhere else, pre-Christmas shopping and socializing are in full swing here. The streets are crowded with shoppers and there are little Christmas markets selling crafts and food. I wondered where this custom of gift-giving had arisen and lo and behold, I found out that it has existed here since Roman times when the pagan festival Saturnalia was held to celebrate the winter solstice. According to the calendar of that time, the day of the solstice was December 25th and was marked by feasting, partying and the exchange of small gifts. In the 4th century, Pope Julius declared this day to be the birth day of Christ in the hope that more pagans would convert to Christianity. The custom of lighting candles signified light returning after the solstice and of course, lights are now a big part of Christmas. The streets here are all lit up and very festive looking.

As usual, there is a very large tree in the Piazza of St. Peters Basilica. Every year a particular town or region constructs a huge Nativity scene in the Piazza and this year Venice created it out of sand taken from the Lido di Jesolo. Good thing it`s covered as we`ve been having more rain than usual. The custom here is to place the baby Jesus in the crib on Christmas Eve after midnight Mass. Obviously, this could  not be done with the sand sculpture so it is already complete.

Piazza Venezia

Last year, the Christmas tree which the city installs in Piazza Venezia, was a laughing stock as it was spindly and dying when it was put up earning the name of Spelacchio, the mangy one. This year, Netflix has donated a tree and a fine one it is too. In fact so large, that the bottom branches had to be sawn off in order for it to be transported to its location and then hammered back into place again. The only eyesore is that there is a large TV screen at the bottom presumably showing something related to Netflix. I didn’t get close enough to see as it was raining when I went by.

During Roman times when Saturnalia was celebrated, schools and workplaces were closed and even the slaves didn’t work during this time. I met a friend today who has turned down a dinner invitation on Christmas Eve as apparently, all public transport will stop at 9 pm, taxis will be scarce and he won’t be able to get home. Romans still take their holidays seriously it seems. I myself will be back in Toronto for Christmas and for sure public transport will be operating normally there.

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A Visit to Dublin

Monument of Light
Image: Rory MacFlynn

The last time I was in Dublin about three years ago, I didn’t notice the above spire. I’m not sure why as it is 120 metres tall and soars into the sky; one can just barely see the top. It stands opposite the General Post Office (GPO) on O’Connell St. where I went to see a relatively recent permanent exhibition on the Easter Uprising in 1916. Since the GPO was the centre of the uprising, it made it more real being within the building where the battle started and a perfect location for the exhibit. Somehow, seeing the spire just outside seemed a fitting symbol of a nation rising against oppression. It stands on the site where Nelsons column once stood and was blown up by the IRA in 1966. After that, a reclining statue of Anna Livia sitting on a slope, with water flowing past her to represent the River Liffey, was installed which Dubliners quickly referred to asThe Floozie in the Jacuzzi.

I didn’t spend a lot of time sightseeing during my week there as my main goal was to catch up with as many friends as possible both in Belfast as well as in Dublin so I spent most of my time eating and drinking, Guinness of course!

I lived in Dublin for many years but the city has changed considerably since I lived there. One expects to see restorations and new buildings but I was taken aback and charmed by this building which I came across by accident and which I had never noticed before although it was certainly there during my time.

It’s the building occupied by the oldest charity in the city of Dublin who used it from 1855 to 1992. As you can see from the writing across the front, the charity is the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers Society established in 1790 to relieve the poverty which pervaded the city at that time. Unable to work and ashamed to beg, many people died from poverty in garrets and cellars. It was to help these people living in a particular part of the city, that the society was formed. The charity still exists and helps people who are experiencing temporary difficulties and need one time assistance to get back on their feet. I love the name of the Society.

Dublin was very festive coming up to Christmas with streets and shop windows beautifully decorated, much more so than Rome. However, today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and marks the start of the Christmas season here.

It happens to be the feast day of the neighbourhood I live in and there was the annual procession on our hill. I went to catch a bus at the bottom of the hill this afternoon and bumped into it as it came along the main road for a short stretch before going back up the hill again. People wait until today to put out their decorations and the Christmas lights in the streets will be turned on tonight.  The shopping has already begun.

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Rome Says Enough!

On Saturday a week ago, there was a demonstration in front of City Hall to protest against the increasing decline in Rome’s infrastructure. There were reportedly around 10,000 people bearing various slogans critical of the Mayor Virginia Raggi and her Populist party, Le Cinque Stelle, for failing to honour election promises.

Garbage continues to pile up around the city. The waste management company AMA, which deals with Rome’s garbage, is apparently controlled by organized crime syndicates. Raggi’s attempt to get rid of them without putting other plans in place, has led to the present state of affairs from what I understand.

It’s not only the garbage that’s an issue but also the roads, many of which are full of holes that need to be fixed.  The city just cordons them off with orange plastic netting because it can be sued if someone falls and is injured, and nothing is done for months. People at the demonstration were walking around wearing the orange netting in protest . The transport system is a disaster and buses have even been going up in flames for lack of maintenance. People have had enough and want change.

As if all this wasn’t enough, it has been raining here since last Sunday. On Monday, several huge trees fell over right in the city centre crushing cars. These were cleared away fairly quickly but there are lots of damaged trees and smaller branches lying around  which will probably be left there for some time. We can’t really complain about this because the rain has devastated parts of the north as well as Sicily so we are lucky by comparison.

Next weekend, is going to be interesting. The Mayor herself has been accused of abuse of office regarding a controversial appointment in the City Council. Next Saturday, the case comes to trial and she has said that she will resign if found guilty. On Sunday there’s going to be a public referendum to determine if the municipally owned transport company ATAC, which runs the bus and subway system, should continue to be allowed a monopoly, or if competition should be given free rein. Meanwhile, the city totters along as it has always done.  As a friend commented in response to my last post, it’s not called the Eternal City for nothing! Let’s hope that things improve soon, if not the infrastructure, at least the weather.

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Back in Rome for Better for Worse

I returned to Rome a little over a week ago after Thanksgiving in Canada. From the start of Fall weather in Ontario, going mushroom picking wearing a jacket, to 25C and sunny in Rome. I had to dig out my summer stuff as it has been hot and also quite humid since I got here.

It was nice to be back but I was horrified by the state of the city. We have a communal garbage collection in our neighbourhood which means that one has to take one’s garbage down to the street and put it in the appropriate bin, namely organic, plastic/metal, glass and non-recyclable garbage. For some unknown reason, the bins are not being emptied.  So  if yuo look up, you see the beautiful dome of St. Peter’s basilica but you have to keep your eyes down as the sidewalk is overflowing with garbage. All attempts at differentiating it have ceased. It is truly an ugly sight and I have no doubt that rats come out to feast at night. I am told that the Mayor cancelled all the garbage collection contracts on account of corruption and has not found other companies to replace the ones fired. The city council has also cut park maintenance so it will be sad to see the gardens of the Villa Borghese and Villa Pamphili falling into decline.

Down at our local daily market, several stalls have shut down, something about the taxes being too high for them to make a profit. The vibrant atmosphere of the market is no longer there and it seems like the rest of the vendors are just hanging on. Italy’s economy is in dire straits and the EU parliament is threatening to introduce austerity measures.  The new coalition government is not a happy marriage and it’s hard to say where the country is heading. At least, since the Brexit fiasco neither party is pushing for a break from the EU yet.

On the positive side, Rome has somehow survived all sorts of changes including powerful invasions so it will pull through somehow. One small thing that cheered me up was that the trees which had been cut down in the garden next door have sprouted new branches and are growing again. Hard to believe as they were cut right down. Not all have regrown but those that have, seem to be doing well and I even spotted a parrot a couple of days ago. Miracles do happen so I haven’t given up hope yet.

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Summer Adventure in Haida Gwaii

I have been back in Canada since July enjoying the summer here with family and friends.  The highlight of my time here so far was a trip to Haida Gwaii, an archipelago 80km west of northern British Columbia and 65km south of Alaska. Formerly named the Queen Charlotte Islands by the British, the name was changed in 2010. My sister Florinda and I flew  from Toronto to Vancouver where we switched to a small plane to fly to Sandspit on Moresby Island. I have taken many flights in my lifetime, often to remote places, but I had never been on one where the fight attendant called for more people to move to the back of the plane before we took off, to balance the weight better!

Brian making sure we were adequately kitted out

Haida Gwaii is the historic territory of the Haida people who have inhabited the islands since around the 12 cenury BC. It consists of more than 150 islands, the largest being Graham and Moresby. The southern part of Moresby and the islands off it have been designated a provincial park called Gwaii Haanas and the only way to visit this part is by boat.


Needless to say, one can’t do this on one’s own so we went on a 4-day tour starting from Sandspit, organized by Moresby Explorer’s Group.

There were 10 of us in the group including my niece Charmaine from Vancouver, her husband Neil and their young daughters, Alexa and Yvonne. We travelled by Zodiac operated by our guide Brian who had a wealth of information on the history, geography and biology of the islands. Although we had beautiful weather, Haida Gwai can be very wet and cold and the weather can change in minutes so it’s best to be prepared. Before setting off, we had to don bulky waterproof dungarees, jackets, rubber boots and life vests. We soon learned to go to the bathroom (read outhouse in the wild) before donning all this.

Humpback Whale
Image: Neil Bailey

Zodiacs can travel at speed and we whizzed along seeing spectacular scenery. The archipelago is thought to have broken off from the edge of the continent that was originally a cliff and you see coastal rain forests clinging to mountain slopes and plunging almost vertically into the sea. It is also thought that parts of the islands were left untouched by ice sheets during the ice age so there are species of flora and fauna not seen anywhere else. From the boat, we saw whales mostly orcas, and also a humpback which came so close to the boat that we could see it’s teeth when it opened it’s mouth. I was so stunned, I couldn’t gather my wits to take a picture.

Seals with pups
Image: Neil Bailey

We saw seals, sea lions, puffins sitting on rocks, giant jelly fish in the water, eagles above from time to time, and occasionally deer on the banks.


Image: Neil Bailey








Giant Jellyfish
Image: Neil Bailey
















Deer with fawn









Walking into the coastal rainforest is an awesome experience. The ground is covered with spongy moss and spectacular trees of Sitka spruce, western hemlock and red cedar tower above growing up to 300 feet. The trunks of some are so massive that all 10 of us together could not surround many of the trees. Below the trees are shrubs, ferns, waterfalls, streams and bogs. It is dark, the air is cool and it can feel a bit spooky, I was glad to be with a group.

Image: Neil Bailey








Yvonne near massive tree trunk











We spent two nights on a floating lodge where every single item has to be brought in by boat and dirty laundry and garbage taken back to Sandspit. Despite this, the food was superb including freshly baked home made breads each day. We dined very well with delicious breakfasts, snacks and packed lunches during the day, and delicious dinners in the evenings.

Image: Florinda Kotisa

We were very lucky that the water was calm close to the lodge while we were there and we even did a little kayaking.  Thanks to Charmaine, Alexa and Yvonne for persuading me to go with them after breakfast as the others sat on the deck drinking coffee and watching us, which was tempting.



The Haida culture was almost destroyed with the advent of otter hunting and logging by people from the mainland. The Haida population was also decimated by diseases such as smallpox brought in inadvertently, or otherwise, by outsiders seeking to cash in on the natural resources of the islands. The traditional way of life had almost disappeared, suppressed by mainland Canada wishing to impose its own cultural identity on the Haida people.

Haida Poles at SGaang Gwaay, Anthony Island

It is only more recently that the people are trying to revive their language and arts. Abandoned villages, often formerly looted of their carvings have been declared UNESCO heritage sites and have a Haida person (watchmen) on site to take visitors around and explain the Haida way of life.  One of the major cultural characteristics is the presence of  poles carved from giant cedar tree trunks in the villages. There are memorial poles, mortuary poles, inside house poles and frontal poles outside the house. The carvings are representations of human, animal and supernatural figures and each pole tells the story associated with a person or the family lineage. The mortuary poles are formed from trees placed with the base on top such that the base is hollowed out and a bentwood mortuary box holding the remains of the dead person can be inserted into the top. The pole is allowed to decay with time and the idea is that it will eventually fall and the person’s remains will return to the earth. We saw a number of poles in a village called SGang Gwaay on Anthony Island south of Moresby regarded as a sacred site as  people died and were buried here during a smallpox epidemic. The sad part was that they will not last as tradition demands that they be left to disintegrate with time. I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to see them as there will be nothing left to see in a few more years.

Hotspring Island

Brian would never tell us in advance where we were going as the weather can change in an instant and decisions have to be made accordingly.  We spent one night in a cabin at Rose Harbour on Kunghit Island, one of the southernmost islands.  On the way back up, he wasn’t sure whether or not the springs at Hotspring Island were open but it was a lovely morning and he decided to take us there anyway. Luckily, they were open and we just wallowed in the springs going from pool to pool all at different temperatures. I could have stayed there for hours but we had to get back on the boat.

Charmaine and family have a camper van. After our trip to Moresby, we set off in camper van and took the ferry to Graham Island where there are a few roads and we were able to drive around. We stayed in a cabin near the beach at Rose Spit which is only about 65km from Alaska.

Neil and Alexa catching crab

There, the more intrepid among us, led by Charmaine, went crab catching in the ocean (I stayed on the beach!). We cooked our own food, bought fish from local fishermen and dined very well.  We visited Masset, Port Clements, Queen Charlotte and Skidegate.



New Pole at Rose Spit

The main town, Masset has a relatively new museum showcasing Haida culture. Sadly, many spectacular Haida carvings are not in Haida Gwaii but have been carried off to museums all over the world. However, there are still carvers alive who are trying to pass on the tradition to younger people. It is encouraging to see a revival of Haida culture. There are only 24 people left who speak the language fluently and there is a drive to get these people to teach it to the younger generation as well as to pass on the legends, stories and songs, all of which belong to an oral tradition.  Haida is now being taught in schools. Last week, I saw a Haida movie at the Toronto International Film Festival called ‘The Edge of the Knife’ which was in the Haida language with English subtitles. It was heartening to see that cultures of the First Nations are finding their voice.



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