A Trip to Jonestown, August 2008

Pavilion Area, August 2008

“You can’t get into Jonestown without the key,” the man told me.

It was sunset, and we were sitting next to the pool of the hotel where I was staying in Georgetown. The next morning I was due to leave at 5:30 a.m. to take a chartered boat to Port Kaituma, and from there, a chartered SUV into Jonestown. I had come to Guyana at great financial expense to visit Jonestown, the topic of a book I’m writing. And now this man was telling me I was locked out.

I was dumbfounded.

He was part of a group planning to erect a memorial/ tourism site at Jonestown, a gold miner who was the local liaison of two men in New York. Although I’d been in touch with the lead investor in the States, he’d neglected to mention this complication.

The Guyanese partner, a large sweaty man who was wreathed in gold – necklaces, rings, bracelets, looked at me with suspicion. He told me that the group erected the fence to keep lumber companies from poaching timber. Their plan was to reconstruct several buildings, including the pavilion – where residents lined up to drink cyanide-laced punch on November 18, 1978 – as well and some of the cottages, where paying guests could spend the night. There would also be a restaurant and a souvenir shop. Two other groups – one of which is the Guyanese government – are working on similar plans in an effort to attract more foreigners to the impoverished nation. “I want to recreate Jonestown and promote dark tourism in Guyana,” the Minister of Tourism told a local paper last year.

The Guyanese man seated before me told me their motivation was altruistic, not monetary. When I asked him which government entity had given them permission to construct the fence, he said they didn’t need it, because one of their partners – a former Temple member – owned Jonestown. According to the man, a San Francisco court had awarded the member the property after the massacre, he said. (As of publication of this article, I have been unable to contact the member or locate said court document).

The claim seemed far-fetched, but I wasn’t about to debate this man; I needed him to give me the key. First he said he had it, then he backpedaled and said he didn’t. Finally, he instructed me to ask for “Terry the Barber” once I reached Port Kaituma. He didn’t know his surname. “Everyone knows him up there,” he said. The whole affair was beginning to sound like a Raymond Chandler novel.

The next day, instead of enjoying the eight-hour boat ride through the Guyanese interior, I kept imagining standing before a locked gate, rattling it with fury.

I didn’t find “Terry the Barber,” but I took a chance and went to the Jonestown site anyway. There was indeed a fence – a high, barbed-wire fence – along the front of the property. But there was no gate. The rainy season had apparently delayed its placement. I found it ironic that Jonestown finally had the barbed wire fence that was rumored to surround it during its existence.

The road into the site was pocked with deep holes that were filled with mud, and in some places it was so narrow that the brush scraped our vehicle on both sides. We came to a stop close to where the playground had once been. Beer cans littered the road.

All that was left of Jonestown was a tangled jungle garden. I’d heard there was no infrastructure left – 30 years had passed, after all – but I’d spent the past year reading through the daily business of the community, studying photographs of the buildings and fields, and talking to people who lived there, and it was still shocking to see such emptiness. As I picked my way through the chest-high bushes growing in the area where the pavilion once stood, what struck me most was the silence. No birds, no bugs, nothing. The temperature was in the high 90s; the sun burned relentlessly overhead.

A wave of nausea and dizziness hit me, and when I stopped to sip a cold soda, my thoughts turned to the Jonestown field workers who labored in this same weather – all day, every day – and I gained new respect for them. Through my research, I’ve come to view most of the Jonestown residents as idealists, if anything, who were tragically betrayed by their leader.

Three men who had regular contact with the community during its existence accompanied me: Carlton Daniels, then postmaster of Port Kaituma; Wilfred Jupiter, the foreman of the Guyanese crew that helped build Jonestown; and his son, Benjamin, who attended the Jonestown school.

Wilfred and Benjamin macheted a path through the brush to show me various rusting artifacts, including a giant crane truck turned on its side, a grain dryer, and a small red driving tractor. All showed signs of being scavenged by gold miners who burn down the site periodically to look for scrap metal for their gins. Jupiter pointed to a charred tree trunk and pellets of cooled molten steel under the grain dryer as evidence.

In the pavilion area, we collected several items that looked like they might have belonged to the community, including a corroded metal file of the type used to sharpen blades, a piece of green canvas similar to what was used to cover the school tents, a brown glass medicine bottle, and some white ceramic insulators. These I plan to donate to the California Historical Society, the chief repository of Jonestown artifacts.

Farther down the road, in the area that once contained the cage of Mr. Muggs – Jim Jones’ chimpanzee who emigrated with everyone else from California and who died like everyone else – we stumbled upon a flatbed truck with rotting wood planks. A large tree grew through the passenger side window, and a visitor had carved his name into the door. Several hundred feet deeper into the thick brush, we located the 12-foot-deep tunnel that once served as storage for dry goods. There, we found a washing machine buried in the mud, and another, much larger machine. We were trying to decipher what it was when several gray bats poured out of a hole in the top of it and fluttered about our heads. We retreated just as a storm rolled in. The rain came in sheets, drenching us as we ran back to the SUV.

The trip left me with several impressions. I feel that a physical memorial dedicated to the 918 children, women and men who died when Jonestown met its violent end is long overdue.  But I also believe that there should be a way to allow former members of Peoples Temple, Jonestown survivors, and the relatives of those who died there to weigh in on the matter. There’s a fine line between commemoration and exploitation when plans turn to rebuilding a place of such horror. Several troubling questions are raised, aside the issue of who “owns” Jonestown. Will visitors gain a better understanding of the community’s victories and hardships, or simply gawk, shake their heads, and get creeped out as they lay awake in the cottage replicas? More fundamentally, will the memorial help humanize the victims of Jim Jones or will it stigmatize them further? Jonestown is not Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. It’s a place where a group of extraordinary people hoped to establish a utopia. It should be honored as such.

(Julia Scheeres can be reached at juliascheeres@gmail.com. Her other article in this year’s edition of the jonestown report is Author seeks additional sources for Jonestown book.)