(This account of the author’s trip to Jonestown is the chapter of the same name from his book, Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge (New York: Vintage Departures, 2012. The book was recently nominated by The Daily Telegraph as one of “The Twenty Best Travel Books of all Time.” The chapter is reprinted with the gracious permission of both the author and publisher.)
About half way through the flight, I began to wonder if all this was a good idea. Down below, the landscape began to change. For a while, there were the comforting strips of sugar. They looked like the spines of books, stacked deep inland, and then all the way up the coast. Then the patterns ended, with the mouth of a river almost as wide as the English Channel. It was the Essequibo, looking as if it had drained the continent of silt. After that, the land darkened to a sort of stygian green, with veins of silvery-black. There was no order about this, nor any sign of life. It was just an uneven vegetative darkness, as if the land had swallowed the night.
Perhaps the Townies were right: I’d find nothing. Perhaps I’d just wander off the airstrip only to be lost in the gruesome prickly dark. I’d meet strange people, mad with damp and sores, but they’d never have heard of Jones. Then I’d get diarrhoea and yaws, and my skin would begin to weep. After four days of this, blundering around looking for the light, I’d eventually emerge in a clearing. By then, I’d no longer care about Jonestown, and I’d look like Debbie Layton: hollow-eyed, panicky and howling for a plane.
I tried to reassure myself but nothing seemed to work. I was travelling to a place I wasn’t sure existed, and which was once the epitome of despair. I’d never met anyone who’d ever been there, and now here I was in a tiny plane with a tractor tyre, two cases of rum, and a box of brand new Bibles. Even my fellow-passengers were a discouraging sight. One was a pork-knocker – or gold prospector – and was dressed in shorts and orange rubber boots, and carried a pump-action shotgun. Another had with him a little bird, about the size of grape, which he chatted to all the way. Meanwhile, the woman next to me, who was already flooded with sweat, peeled open the Old Testament and started murmuring chunks of Leviticus.
‘Where you going?’ said the birdman.
‘Jonestown,’ I said, without thinking.
‘You won’t find their gold,’ he grinned, ‘They had bunkers underground.’
My heart sank. Already I could I could feel myself encircled in coils of local myth. Jonestown was famous for this. To survive it, I’d brought with me my own version of the story, assembled back in London. It included several hand-drawn maps, a hefty bundle of notes, and dozens of grainy pictures. I’d even transcribed parts of ‘The Death Tapes’ – the recordings Jones made as he ordered his people to die. None of this would tell me what went on there now – but at least it was better than the birdie version.
As man and finch began to tweet, I pulled out my notes and started to read.
* * *
In the short, peculiar life of Jim Jones, what stands out most is his relentless metamorphosis. The old coverings are constantly falling away, as the new ones form in their place. By the end, he even acquires a blank insectile gaze, and a voice that clatters and whirs. Perhaps he knows where the transformations will inevitably lead. Not that it frightens him. ‘Death is nothing!’ he’ll be heard to say. It’s merely the shedding of a used-up layer.
Ever since he was born, in 1931, Jones has been wriggling out of whatever he was before. His family are descended from Native Americans. They are poor and live in Indiana, and Jones’ father is a Klansman and an angry veteran, enfeebled by poison gas. This, Jones decides, is not the life for him. As a child, he plays the preacher, and by the age of twenty-two he’s established a church of his own. Jones likes the multi-coloured skins of the poor, which seem to give him a certain beauty. By 1963, he’s head of the human rights commission, and his disciples assume a new name, the People’s Temple Full Gospel Church. Two years later, he shrugs off Indiana, and moves to California. According to an article he’s read – in Esquire – it’s the only place that’ll survive if there’s ever a nuclear war.
As he waits for the war that won’t happen, another change occurs. The Prophet, as he now calls himself, acquires some of the powers of God. He tells his followers that he’s the reincarnation of Lenin and Christ, and soon he’s performing wonders with chicken giblets and hauling out dangerous tumours. By the end of the Sixties, no one knows who loves him more: the politicians or the poor. Now the dispossessed are giving the Temple everything they’ve got: their children, their trust and all their possessions. In time, the cult amasses over $10 million, in fifteen different accounts. Even the Revd Jones is surprised: ‘Everything I touch,’ he thrills, ‘turns to gold.’
But soon there are no more layers to shed, and the sheen begins to fade. The Prophet now has to colour his hair, and thicken his sideburns with an eyebrow pencil. He also finds that he has to rekindle his potency with the youngest girls, and steady his hand with Scotch. Virgins like Debbie Layton are made to promise that they begged him into bed, and that they’d never seen a man so big. As the Prophet’s powers dwindle, he even begins to press them on the boys. This only excites the interest of the police. One day, he finds himself at the back of a Hollywood theatre, grappling with a fluffer (who works for the LAPD). He’s accused of lewd conduct, a pitiful charge for a man so close to God.
So it is that the coverings begin to crack. But as they do so, the cult that surrounds Jones only seems to strengthen. He calls his followers ‘darlings’, and then tells them they’ll never leave his church alive. Sex is often the only hold he has over people, so he keeps them all on film. Now there are always guns around, and curious ceremonies, to bless the Father’s fetishes. Look at Idi Amin, he says, ‘we should learn to emulate his wild actions’. Soon, ‘The Cause’ will have its own fleet of buses, and its own little army that goes training in the hills.
It’s now time for a final transformation. By 1977, California has become hostile, and it’s time for the Prophet to fly. He’s already bought a piece of Promised Land: 27,000 acres of distant Guyanese forest. There he will rule like some mystic king. In his eyes, this country’s perfect; it’s been shunned by the world, and its officials are now starving, and candidly corrupt. They’ll do anything for money, or a night with a teenage girl. Unsurprisingly, nothing seems to function, except a ministry of thugs. Even better, Guyana is cranky and socialist, and run by a man called Burnham, who thinks he’s an African chief.
Late that summer, the planes are all block-booked. Over 900 believers will fly out to Georgetown, and then transfer to ships. Amongst them are both the hopeless and hopeful: fundamentalists, former addicts, charismatics, ex-cons, Vietnam veterans, hundreds of African-Americans, and a handful of white progressives. These include a former CBS television presenter, Mike Prokes, and a woman who’d escaped the Nazi death camps. She’s there with her son, Larry – who will eventually start shooting people – and her daughter, Debbie Layton. Finally, there’s Jones himself. He looks puffy and distracted. All that sustains him now are faith and voodoo, and powerful draughts of prescription pain-killers.
Finally, they get to Mabaruma. After two days at sea, there’s relief as they clamber ashore. But what no one knows is that this is an act of metamorphosis. It’s a process that can never be reversed, and has only one conclusion.
* * *
Mabaruma was not quite what I – or the faithful – had expected. While it wasn’t exactly a Land of Milk and Honey, nor was it dark and carnivorous.
From the airstrip, I got a ride to the village, which was built high above the forest on an enormous whale of green. Up here, running along the spine, was an avenue of stately rubber trees, and a pleasing sprawl of orchards, paddocks, tiny wooden farms, and tobacco-coloured cows. There was also a miniature hospital, an ambulance without any tyres, and a shop that sold nerve tonic, barbed wire and jeans. It was run by a man called Mr Chan A Sue, who was part Amerindian and part Chinese. He told me that this was once the garden of Guyana, and that every week the ships had left stuffed to the gunnels with fruit.
These days the fruit ships no longer called, and the great sleep that had overwhelmed Mabaruma was now in its third decade. The paint had peeled, the machines had stopped, and the mangoes plopped – unclaimed – into the grass. I stayed at the government guesthouse, which had an ancient bulldozer outside, nesting in the leaves. The evening meal was served at lunchtime, and then everyone went home. I ate with the local doctor, who happened to be Cuban. He hadn’t understood anyone for months, and almost wept at the sound of Spanish. The garden that he described sounded more like Eden than Guyana: idyllic, lonely and haunted by snakes. ‘I see a lot of people with bites,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘and most of them die.’
It wasn’t just snakes that made people mawkish. Across the road was the police house, quietly flapping apart in the breeze. There was always a drunkard on the porch, and once I asked him if he remembered the people of Jonestown. He fixed me with a meaty red eye, ‘White Boy,’ he rasped, ‘Only one’s thing is certain: we all is going to die.’
Then a corporal appeared, and I asked her the same. She had nervous, pretty eyes like a fox, and her stripe was fixed to her sleeve with a pin. ‘They was lovely people,’ she said, ‘they had a band, and they often came here and sang. Right here, under the trees. Their girls was always beautiful. Beautiful. I can’t believe they’re gone.’
* * *
From the top of the guesthouse, I could just see Venezuela. It was hard to tell exactly where the trees lost their English names, and where the Spanish ones began. The doctor said the border was ten kilometres away, but that no one ever went out there except ‘piratas y contrabandistas’. We spent ages peering down into the jungle. There are few frontiers in South America that have tempted so much war, and perhaps we expected to see a patrol, or a little army on the move. Instead, all we heard were the monkeys and the call of a screaming piha.
But people still worried about the Venezuelans. Many felt that one day their rich, hot-blooded neighbours would come pouring through the forest, armed to the teeth. It was well-known that Venezuelan schoolchildren were taught that over half of Guyana was theirs, and that clawing it back was a matter of national duty. Caracas was always threatening them. In the 1890s, the issue had brought Britain and America – for the last time – almost to the brink of conflict. Eventually, the tension between imperialism and the Monroe Doctrine had been resolved by the Tsar. But it wasn’t the end. The row flared again in the sixties and seventies, with occasional exchanges of gunfire, and it has smouldered ever since.
Some think Washington was behind these spats, trying to humiliate Burnham (better Venezuelan than Marxist, went the thinking at the time). But if it’s true, Burnham outwitted them. He’d always wanted some sort of leverage over the United States. Then into his lap fell Jones. This kinky, drug-befuddled crackpot not only had guns and a bank full of money, he was also willing to live in the benighted north-west, and place thousands of vulnerable Americans right in the path of the enemy’s army.
* * *
Guyana opened its arms and let the Temple in.
From here, my trip upriver felt like a journey backwards, through the Amerindian past. To begin with, everything felt reassuringly contemporary. I walked down off the hill to Mabaruma’s port, known as Kumaka. It had a long street of bright red earth with a few stalls selling contraband from Venezuela, mostly shotguns and beer. Several people still remembered the Temple. They’d sold embroidery here and kept a lodge called The Dewdrop Inn. One of the Indian traders wished me luck finding the gold, and slipped me a can of illegal beer. ‘Look out for my cousin,’ he told me, ‘Lost all his fingers in the Jonestown sawmill, but he knows where everything is.’
Along the river was a waterfront, made of timber and zinc. Here I met Ivan, an Arawak boatmen, who had thick square hands, long blue hair, and a canoe with a powerful engine. He could take me as far as Port Kaituma, he said, first along this river – the Uruca – and then the Barima and Kaituma. It was about fifty miles, and we’d leave as soon as he had fuel.
As I waited on the wharf, I began to get a sense of the past closing in. First of all a large blue-haired family appeared, with an ancient sewing machine. The children, who were all naked, swooped off the woodwork like swallows and flapped around in the water for a while, until a boat like an old tree-trunk appeared, and they all climbed in and paddled off. Then suddenly there was an old man next to me, inspecting my face very closely. Eventually, he spoke: ‘You got glasses. I’d like you to give them to me.’ I explained that I couldn’t see properly without them, and he explained that he’d never seen properly at all. This, however, had never stopped him making canoes, one a week, chopped from a tree.
Then Ivan reappeared, and soon we were soaring along between two ribbons of forest. To begin with, there were occasional Arawak farms: a canoe, a tiny, painted house and a plot of neat little vegetables coaxed from the edge of the jungle. But then the river narrowed and darkened. The water here was black and inert like tarnished silver, and, above it, the morphos seemed to flop around as if they were caught in molten metal. Here the people too were different, glimpsed through the trees. They had narrow roasted faces and knots of dusty hair. At first, I waved but they just stared back, as if they’d seen nothing at all.
‘They’re Warau,’ said Ivan, and I suddenly understood.
The Warau were famously different, like a link with a long-lost age. It’s said they’d given Mankind its first dugout, and would probably give it its last. In hundreds of years, they’d hardly changed at all. Although it’s likely they were the first Amerindians to encounter Europeans, they were also the most resistant. They’d never been persuaded to work, and had no interest in learning the language of others, or in the world beyond their own. For centuries, they’d been merely a vessel for everyone else’s contempt. ‘They just Bucks,’ said Ivan, ‘dirty, lazy Bucks!’
But it was their simplicity that had probably saved them. There were now about 3,000 Warau living in these swamps. Even their huts had a pared-down, essential feel. They were just stacks of branches and woven grass, straddling the water. There were no crops, no ornaments, and no discernible gods. Traditionally, the bodies of the dead were stripped down by the piranhas, then daubed with ochre and hung inside the hut. For all I knew, the Warau still did this, and the bones were their only possessions. That’s how they’d survived: by having nothing of their own that anyone else could possibly want.
* * *
The experience of the other Amerindians hadn’t always been so simple.
To begin with all seemed well. Up this end of the Guianas there was little resistance to the Europeans, who’d often assumed that the natives had been provided for their pleasure. Even the things explorers took home – berbekots, kanoas, hamakas, and marákas (barbecues, canoes, hammocks and maracas) – seemed to suggest an easy life of indolence and leisure. The men too made good souvenirs, and there are records of the ‘Guianians’ serving not only the English Tudors but also the Court of the Medicis.
But most pleasing of all were the women, who were biddable and plump. ‘Whoever lives amongst them,’ wrote one early adventurer, ‘had need to be the owner of no less than Joseph’s continency, not at least to covet their embraces’. Even the good Sir Walter Raleigh found his continence severely tested (‘I have seldom seen a better favoured woman,’ he pants, ‘she was of good stature, with black eyes, fat of body …’). Before long, the Europeans were lavishing the Amerindians with their appreciation. It is now widely believe that, in return, the Amerindians had another innovation for their guests: Europe’s first cases of syphilis.
Then came sugar, and everything changed. By the early seventeenth century, the Dutch were gathering up the natives and trying to make them work. But it failed. Like the Warau today, the Amerindians would rather die than do what they were told. They wouldn’t even work for baubles and periwigs, and so the import of Africans began. Only then did the Amerindians have a role, as man-hunters and captors of runaway slaves. In 1686 it became illegal to enslave Caribs and Arawaks, and for the next century and a half, they became a minor aristocracy, just below the whites.
None of this bode well for emancipation of slaves. In 1834, Africans were suddenly in the interior, scraping out farms and looking for gold. Even now, the Amerindians fear them for their size and their strength, and their potential for revenge. As the new population began to sprawl inland, so did the smallpox. By 1900, the population of indigenous Guianese was down to 18,000, a fraction of what it had been before. The survivors were those that lived in the swamps and the mountains, or three weeks’ journey inland. But they were still like vagrants in their hunting grounds, despised by those that worked.
Then came the age of the museum. For much of the twentieth century, the Amerindians have lived like specimens, preserved in their own domain. It was made illegal to visit them, and they all became wards of the Crown. Sex with an Amerindian was now a crime, like the seduction of a child. It wasn’t quite what the tribes had wanted, but at least they began to revive. There are now 45,000 Amerindians living in nine different groups. In fact, it’s the only section of Guyanese society whose numbers are increasing.
But the modern world is still fraught with danger. In the last fifty years, the Amerindians have had to cope with drug gangs, illegal logging, mercury poisoning (from the gold mines) and a new and virulent plague. Ivan explained: ‘The big thing just now is HIV. The girls go to the camps, and they works with the miners, and then they comes back here. If one of our men dies, then, in our culture, his brother must take on his wife – and so him die too.’
The dangers have constantly changed. In 1977, there was an altogether different threat to the Amerindians of the north-west. It was the beautiful people, with their embroidery and cookies. Come and join us, they’d say, we’ve found paradise on Earth.
* * *
After several hours, Ivan dropped me at Port Kaituma. From here, it was only seven miles to Jonestown, over the ridge and out in the Bush. ‘But watch out,’ he warned, ‘there’s bad people around.’
I thanked him and smiled bravely. But it was not how I felt. I realised that, the nearer I got to Jonestown, the more insistent the warnings became. It was as if I was now closing in the target, and some internal radar was beginning to beep. As far as people downriver were concerned, Port Kaituma was a sort of tropical Gomorrah, a place of whores and smugglers, and fortunes made in gold. The only people who ever came up here were the mad, the desperate and those on the run. It seemed that these were the Guyanese badlands, and now, here I was, wondering what to do next.
I took a deep breath, and clambered onto a pier. Around me was a small black inlet, cluttered with stilted slums. The mud stank and made the air feel oily and burnt. I followed a path of planks that led upwards through the stilts. Many years earlier, a man named Vespucci had seen huts like this – also Warau – and had called the place Venezuela, because they reminded him of Venice. Clearly, he’d never seen Port Kaituma.
This was no Venice. As for the town at the top of the bank, it wasn’t even remotely Venetian. For a start, I could see right though it, along a furrow of crimson mud. It looked as if something huge had plunged through the shacks, scraping up a layer of stalls and cardboard and starving dogs, before vanishing into the forest. Then I discovered what the plunging object had been. Through the mud ran long, broken trails of silvery metal. It was all that remained of a railway line which had closed in 1968. Most of the wagons were still there, scattered along the ridge. A few were inhabited, and – where they’d clustered together – this was the centre of town.
I soon learned that much of this had sprung up in the recent gold rush. But, although Port Kaituma looked like the work of an afternoon, there was a pattern, of sorts. Along the top of the ridge was a rim of rickety churches. They had grandiose names like the Tabernacle of His Glory Revealed and the Assembly of God, and from here the town spread out, in descending levels of sin. First, there was a strip of old British army trucks. This is where the miners worked, constantly loading up drums of fuel and roaring off into the bush. Next came the gas-sellers, who were always swearing and drinking and playing cricket in the sludge. Then there were the little people – the prostitutes, pedlars, rappers and junkies – who lived in a sort of human piggery of pens and stalls, tumbling down the hill.
Finally, at the bottom, was the long red scar left by the rails. During my three days in Port Kaituma, it was always here that I felt most wary. Each of the rum shops played its own techno, enveloping everything in waves of interlocking sound. It was like being caught in some devastating electronic crossfire. Often people looked as if they’d already been mechanically deafened and now just stood and watched. Once a man who was almost naked came over and screamed at me, waving some wounds in my face. I couldn’t even tell what language he was speaking, but his breath smelt of paint.
It was quieter up the other end, away from the port. Up here there was a large, clapboard guesthouse – where I stayed – and a matching clapboard shop. They were both owned by an African ironmonger, called Mr Charles. There was also a row of little eateries, each with stools around the stove. The best of these was called BIG D’S FOOD MALL. It was painted toothpaste green, and – instead of techno – it emitted gentle chirrups of gospel choir.
‘Big D’ herself – or Denise – was clearly not the woman she once had been. Life was constantly diminishing her. Now she just sat, looking small and surprised. First, she said, she’d lost her school friends, then her husband (to a woman half her age), and then she’d lost a breast. Even now she wondered when the missionary doctors would return and take other bits away. Meanwhile, all she had left was her mall and her skinny girls, who hung around like a pack of hungry whippets. I think she liked the idea of a new customer, as if I was somehow reversing the trend. Every mealtime, she’d roar when I appeared, and the girls would scatter backwards into the kitchen, and return with something new.
Inevitably, we’d talk about Jonestown, and this is the story she told.
This community was smaller then. We was only thirty families.
I remember Jonestown well. I was thirteen at the time. It was a real nice place. I visited on Sundays. They had a doctor, who used to see patients there, or you went to relax. It was a nice place, sort of normal. We were always given things to eat, good food like sandwiches. They had a nice band, played mostly church music. And there were persons dancing with snakes. I remember they had a chimpanzee too, called Mr Muggs. We were a bit scared of him. But, man, it was a nice place! Clean. Everyone worked hard. Sometimes, they also gave out foodstuffs, which was very acceptable at that time. We never had enough to eat.
Yes, I think it was a happy place. I had some friends there who was going to my school. There was Tommy who was a white kid. I’ll never forget Tommy. And Paddy! She was fat! A lovely girl. I still cry when I think of her. And Derek Dawson, and David George, who was Amerindian, and Jimmy Gill. Jimmy was adopted by the Revd Jones but I think he died soon after. They seemed happy. It was a happy place, that’s what we thought. Later, I heard terrible things about what happened there, but we never see them.
I didn’t hear the shooting because I was away at the school. It was a real shock for me, and I couldn’t catch myself. I am still wondering what could spark a man off to do such things.
I never went back. Never went near it in thirty years. But now I want to, I don’t know why. I’d just like to see it again. Perhaps one day I will.
* * *
While Denise was enjoying the sandwiches and snakes, Debbie Layton had a different tale to tell.
People still don’t know what to make of the affidavit she swore on her return to the States, or the book she wrote much later. In them, she describes an evil dystopia, a plantation of religious slaves. People are beaten, starved, bullied and harangued, and then punished with sex and stupefying drugs. Life is a brutal cycle of denial, and even toothpaste and knickers are banned. Work becomes a way of crushing the spirit, and the day ends at midnight and begins again at three. No one can escape; nobody knows where they are, and they have no passport,and no money. Besides, everyone’s an informer, and the forest’s full of guards. Even if defectors do get away, they’ll be hunted for the rest of their lives.
At the heart of this vision is Jones himself. He’s now fabulously mad and broadcasts six hours a day. There are even loudspeakers out in the fields, so that no one misses a word. As for ‘The Cause’, it’s now whatever he says. One theme, however, seems to reoccur: we’re surrounded by mercenaries, says Jones, the capitalists are closing in. He makes everyone practice for a grand, communal death. These drills are called ‘White Nights’, and involve little cups of coloured fluid. Refusing to drink this, says Jones, is an anti-revolutionary act, and no one dares to disobey. On the orders of its Prophet, Jonestown dies over and over again.
In Debbie Layton’s account, there’s no room for happiness or jolly Sunday teas. Like their parents, the children are repeatedly made to rehearse the moment they’ll die. Meanwhile, affection is outlawed. Even the youngest children are brutalised and taken from their parents. If they were to survive childhood, they’d never forget it. Often they’re dangled upside down in the well, or nailed up in a box and left for days on end. There’s even a chimpanzee in this version, although now he’s a figure of terror.
For many, Debbie Layton’s story was just too much.
People assumed it was imagined. Writing years later, Shiva Naipaul said it was ‘beyond the reach of reason’, and that her Jonestown was an ‘incarnation of comic book evil’. This was a shame because Layton had a point: something was rotten in this state within a state. When her affidavit was distributed, in June 1978, only one paper ran with the story, The San Francisco Chronicle. Even the US government remained unpersuaded. That year, embassy officials paid four visits to Jonestown, and – although they were later criticised for their naivety – they never found anything wrong.
But there was one man who wanted to investigate further. Leo Ryan was a large, slightly beaverish man with thick grey hair and an aptitude for trouble. Although he’d been a congressman for years, he’d never quite found his cause. There’d been seal hunts in Newfoundland and abuse in American prisons, but Ryan was often on his own. Now here was something new, the People’s Temple. Soon he became a rallying point for those with relatives in Jonestown. Eventually, he made a momentous decision that would change everybody’s lives: he’d go out there himself.
Nothing could persuade him not to go. He received over a hundred letters of warning, and Debbie Layton told him he’d be killed. But Ryan had already made up his mind. When the cult’s lawyers warned him against ‘a witch hunt’, and threatened the US government with a ‘most embarrassing situation’, Ryan replied that he wasn’t impressed. On 15 November 1978, he arrived in Georgetown with thirteen of the relatives and nine journalists, including an NBC film crew.
Two days later, they arrived in Port Kaituma.
* * *
As Port Kaituma has only ever had one place to stay, most of the delegation ended up – like me – as guests of the African ironmonger.
The old clapboard house now made an unusual hotel. It was a brilliant baby-blue, and along the front there were coloured lights and a large, pink painting of a couple having sex. The blueness continued inside, although the pink people, it seemed, had long since packed up and gone. These days, most of the guests were miners, Rastafarians with Amerindian girlfriends who padded around like cats. I always liked these miners. They were friendly and reckless and gave themselves nursery rhyme names, such as King Charley and the Golden Cat. They were like drop-outs in reverse, people who’d run away to lose themselves in work.
‘My father was a gold miner once,’ said Kenwin, the owner’s son.
‘But the money was better in iron?’ I ventured.
Kenwin said nothing. He was unhappy. If his older brother hadn’t killed a man in Georgetown, he wouldn’t be here at all. He was a geologist and saw his life in stone, anywhere but here. He also knew he’d never be the man his father was. Before Mike Charles disappeared– to rescue his beleaguered heir – he’d been the biggest man in Port Kaituma. Not only was he an ironmonger, he also owned a transport business. ‘And he ran the trucks for Jonestown,’ said Kenwin.
‘And what about this place?’ I asked.
‘Also his,’ he replied, ‘Used to be a nightspot, called the Weekend Disco.’
My room, as I soon discovered, had been built on the old dance floor. The walls were so thin and impromptu that, where they’d cracked, I had an unwelcome view of the room next door. At night, I could hear my neighbour breathing and muttering in his sleep. It was almost as if the walls weren’t there anymore, and we were lying on the dance floor – just as the Americans had, thirty years before.
For the journalists, it had been a pointless day. There was almost nothing to report. Soon after they’d arrived in Port Kaituma, Kenwin’s father had driven them out to Jonestown. It had taken an hour and a half, and they’d arrived in the dark. Jones’ wife had greeted them, and they’d all eaten sausages and sung the Guyanese national anthem. Congressman Ryan was impressed. Then Jones himself had appeared. He was eccentric but not obviously deranged. He’d said things like, ‘I understand hate. Love and hate are very close.’ The only troubling aspect of the evening was that – although he’d let Ryan stay the night – he made the reporters leave. Mike Charles had driven them all back in his truck, and had put them up at the Weekend Disco.
That night, on the dance floor, the journalists drank and smoked and slept. One of them, Charles Krause, of the Washington Post, recorded his frustration. He didn’t believe the stories about beatings and automatic weapons. ‘I couldn’t understand,’ he wrote, ‘why there had been such fuss.’ His colleagues agreed. It had been a wasted day. What they didn’t know is that – for three of them – it would also be their last.
At ten the next morning, Saturday 18 November 1978, Mike Charles drove them back again to Jonestown. Now they could see it in the light: a camp of neat white huts, with nurseries and classrooms, a large tin pavilion sitting in the middle. Another ordinary day threatened. There was no evidence of maltreatment or starvation, and Krause even found himself admiring the cult. It wasn’t much of a story.
But then things took a different turn. Jones appeared, looking sickly and aggressive. When accusations were put to him, he would flare up with rage and self-pity. ‘That’s rubbish! I’m defeated!’ he’d wail, ‘I might as well die!’ Then people started to cry, and some of the families said they wanted to leave. Jones was now at breaking point, and in the tension, a man appeared with a knife. He made a lunge at Ryan but was overpowered and cut himself, spraying Ryan with his blood. It was time to go.
As Ryan prepared to leave, it was agreed he could take fifteen defectors with him. Jones gave them each their passports, and a small bundle of cash. Then, when they were all aboard the truck, Debbie Layton’s brother Larry stepped forward and said he too wanted to leave. No one stopped him.
Soon the truck was off. This time it was heading straight for the Port Kaituma airstrip. They must have made a curious sight: the weeping defectors, the reporters, unsure of what they’d seen, and a congressman spattered in blood. Did a flight from paradise always feel like this? And did it taste of sick and fear? No one seemed to know what to think anymore.
Nor did they realise that Larry had a gun in his pocket, and that behind them was another truck and a tractor with a trailer. On board were half a dozen men armed with the Prophet’s own peculiar brand of madness, and automatic rifles.
* * *
For those that know this story – and perhaps live it every day – it now unfolds like a collision in slow motion. The impact will be catastrophic not because events happen quickly but because of their terrifying momentum. It’s like watching a railway line from above, and the ponderous piston-action of two locomotives, as they billow towards each other, gradually closing the gap. In the carnage that follows, you find yourself asking; what’s the last point at which this could have been prevented? And then you look down the line and there’s nothing there to see.
One man who’d lived most of his life with this scene was Big D’s uncle. Fitz Duke had a face of sun-scorched hardwood, and his goatee was wiry and white like a clump of platinum filaments. One of his thumbs was missing, and he wore huge shorts and a pair of industrial boots that made tracks like a tank. But despite his demanding appearance, he was a man of reluctant words. At first I thought it was me, but then I began to realise that most things left Duke candidly unmoved. I now wonder whether it was the events of that November which had done this, and whether the shock of having felt so much so suddenly had now left him emotionally inert.
My second morning, he agreed to drive me down to the airstrip. It was only a mile away, along a road of brilliant crimson. As he drove, I tried to assemble a conversation from syllables and grunts. But then we turned through a gap in the forest, bounced through some barbed wire gates, and there before us lay the airstrip. It was here that Congressman Ryan and his party had come to meet their two small planes.
The sight of this weirdly open space had an immediate effect on Duke. He suddenly began to talk as if all the different strands of thought had now been gathered up as one. He told me where the planes had stood, where Ryan had waited, where the villagers had assembled to watch the planes, and where the gunmen had appeared, through the same barbed wire gate. At this point, I suddenly realised that not only had Duke seen what happened next, but that it was all still like a film inside his head. ‘They shouted that they had a sick person on board,’ he said, ‘and then their tractor drove between the planes …’
What happened next is like the clippings off the editor’s floor, a series of events in uncertain order. A tarpaulin flies back, and six armed men appear. There’s smoke and a cackle of gunfire. Tyres explode with a perfunctory plop, and there’s the ding and thwap of holes bursting in aluminium and in human tissue. A camera whirrs blankly at the sky, its operator gone. Ryan too looks different now, with part of his head swept away. A man called Big Anthony is firing a machine-gun from the tractor, expertly selecting Americans, and punching them down. The dead look like ragdolls caught in a moment of flight. A diplomat is stumbling through the hail shouting ‘Get me a gun! Get me a fucking weapon!’, and the jungle clatters back. Larry the imposter pulls out his gun but it jams, and he’s beaten to the ground. There are hats and shoes in the dirt as the villagers flee for the trees. Krause the reporter is tucked behind a wheel and can feel his teeth cracking, as he wonders if he’s already dead. Then, suddenly it stops.
‘They’d accomplished their mission,’ said Duke, ‘they’d killed Ryan.’
They’d also killed three newsmen and a dissident, and had left five others badly wounded. The bigger of the two planes no longer worked, and the pilots then took the smaller one and fled. The survivors were now alone. As the gunmen sped off down the road, people began to emerge from the trees and dragged the wounded clear. One of them had an arm that was hanging on only by a thread. ‘And we also found the camera, still running,’ said Duke, ‘We didn’t know what to do with it. We’d never seen one before.’
There would be no more planes that night; it was dark and – just as now – the runway had no lights. The nearest settlement was a mining post at end of the airstrip, called Citrus Grove. But despite its winsome name, there was little there, and it was better known as Bottom Floor. All that the survivors found were a few shacks and a grog-shop called the Rum House. Here, the dozen or so Americans would spend the most frightening night of their life, listening to cries of pain and the sound of a tropical forest screaming itself to sleep.
But it wasn’t just that they were alone. ‘As the killers left,’ explained Duke, ‘one of them shouted, ‘We’ll be back for Port Kaituma’’.’
Bottom Floor has never forgotten that evening either. Little there had changed, except that the Rum House had long since burned down. There were the same lemon trees, the same stilted shacks and the same shadowy lanes. One woman I spoke to said she’d never been back to watch the planes, and that she dreamt about the killings almost every night. I also tracked down a lemon-seller called Poppy Speed. People told me he’d been playing football on the airstrip that day, and that he’d caught a bullet in the thigh. I found him hobbling around his trees, and I asked him if he’d tell me his tale. His eyes narrowed and his hands began to tremble. ‘How long will it take?’ he murmured.
‘Whatever you like,’ I said, ‘Five minutes?’
‘Five minutes is a long time …’ he said blankly, ‘but OK.’
Then I pulled out my Dictaphone, and he turned and fled up his ladder.
‘I’m not saying nothing!’ he cried, ‘Not now! Not ever!’
I suddenly felt guilt rise and catch me in the throat. ‘I’m really sorry …’
But he’d gone, and all I could hear was him crying like a child.
Duke wasn’t surprised by this, when I got back to his jeep.
‘People here are still frightened,’ he said, ‘They don’t know what happened, or who anyone is. They hardly ever seen any white men before. The only ones they saw were people from the Temple, who then starts killing them. Are you surprised they’re still afraid?’
We drove back along the crimson road.
‘This is where we set up an ambush,’ said Duke, remotely, ‘We didn’t have much. A few men trained in the military and a couple of handguns. They had assault rifles. We thought they’d come back and kill us. It was a long night, a bad night. Then in the morning, one of the survivors came down the road from Jonestown. He told us what had happened but of course we didn’t believe him …’
An unforgettable night was about to become an unbelievable new day.
Duke said he’d drive me out there, tomorrow at sunrise.
‘And bring your boots,’ he said, ‘There’s a lot of snakes.’
* * *
I didn’t sleep well that night, at the old Weekend Disco. Perhaps it was the breathing that came through the cracks, or too much of Big D’s boil-ups. I lay awake, taunted by the anguish of Poppy Speed, and the woman who dreamed of gunfire. Even when I did sleep, it felt like a dark trap, haunted by snakes and broken people and enormous lemons. Then at some point there were two explosions in the hall, and I woke in panic, unable to disentangle the imagined from the real. Perhaps the shooting had started again? Remembering that my windows were barred, I crawled across the floor and hid in the shower. Then, after an eternity of silence, I crawled back to bed and lay there, fitfully sifting the sounds of the night. In the morning, I told King Charley about this, and he laughed. ‘Kids!’ he said, ‘Kids with squibs!’
A surreal night was as good a preparation as any for a trip out to Jonestown. For almost an hour, Duke’s jeep soared through the jungle, cresting one great rib of laterite before swooping down on another. The only people we saw were some schoolchildren with umbrellas, and a group of Amerindians who rode along with us for a while, never saying a word. Duke didn’t say anything either, until we reached a clearing and a parade of blackened stumps. ‘Fruit trees,’ said Duke, ‘all planted by the Temple.’
Then we turned off the track, between two posts; the old entrance. There had once been a sign here – ‘WELCOME TO JONESTOWN PEOPLE’S TEMPLE AGRICULTURAL PROJECT’ – but it had long-since been devoured by the damp, along with a sentry box. ‘Security was very tight,’ said Duke, ‘they even had a watchtower, so they could see all around.’
Not anymore. Now the jungle had closed in again, and the path ahead was only a few feet wide. As the jeep passed through, I could hear the thorns squealing down our sides. Duke said you couldn’t walk through this stuff – Tiger Teeth and Hold-me-back – and it occurred to me that our day would end like this, lost in the prickles and dark. But then, suddenly, the trees fell back, and we were out in a miniature savannah. ‘Jonestown,’ announced Duke grimly, ‘this is where it happened.’
I peered into the long grass. Out in the middle was a very tall plum tree, and beyond it a distant brocade of forest. From this rank scattering of weeds and scrub, it was hard to reassemble the past. Everything had gone: classrooms, offices, a cassava mill and housing for a thousand souls. No one could even agree what it had looked like. Debbie Layton had said it was ‘squalid’, and Shiva Naipaul – who turned up three weeks later – said it was a ‘dismal constellation, half-ordered, half-scattered’. But the reporter Krause had described it as idyllic, like an old, antebellum American plantation. Who was right? Was this really an agricultural utopia, or just a cranky sanctuary for the lost and dispossessed?
I walked forward, and pushed into the long grass.
‘Be careful,’ said Duke, ‘you don’t know what’s in there …’
I hesitated, but then I noticed that he was following. I’d already detected that beneath Duke’s outer layer of indifference, there was a vivacious seam of drama. We walked on. All around us the stalks swished and cackled, and little gnarly claws of thorn snatched at our legs. Along the way, we found a ‘Made in the USA’ window fitting and an outpouring of giant, amber ants. ‘Yakmans,’ said Duke, ‘Never try and stop them. They eats anything in their path – rats, insects, even snakes …’
Stepping over these unstoppable gourmands, we found ourselves on the edge of the clearing and squeezed between the trees. Here was what I was looking for: the leprous hulks of the three tractors, a boiler, half a dozen engine blocks, a vast workbench, and the crumbling chassis of an old army truck. Whatever else was happening in Jonestown at the moment it imploded, it was in throes of agricultural effort.
Duke looked sceptical. ‘They wasn’t farming. It was something else …’
I said nothing, and we walked on. The undergrowth was being quietly snipped up by leaf-cutter ants, building a farm by instinct, uncluttered by ideas. At one point, we came across an area where the soil seemed to have boiled up, or been ransacked by badgers. ‘People,’ noted Duke, ‘Looking for small scraps of metal.’
Further along, there was an old miner’s cabin, made from twigs.
‘This is where Jones had his house,’ said Duke.
‘Did you know him?’
He nodded. ‘Funny guy. Always in shades. Never looked at you straight.’
‘And did you see inside this place?’
‘Nope, never crossed his gate.’
We both peered through the twiggy framework. There was nothing there but ant-works and Tiger Teeth. Duke explained that in the days following Jones’ death looters had picked the place clean. I’d also heard that they’d discovered a grisly, parallel economy; the Prophet lived quite differently to his disciples. Apart from the trappings of office – books, electric lights, a fridge full of del Monte fruit, a double bed, cotton sheets, and two dead mistresses – there was also a large quantity of Thorazine, sodium pentathol, chloral hydrate and Demerol. It was like a sort of pharmaceutical armoury, with every weapon you’d ever need in the practice of coercion.
‘The Pavilion was over there,’ said Duke, pointing back to the plum tree.
We set off towards it. Above us, in the tree, a chicken hawk watched, coldly appraising our vulnerability. Then something caught my eye. It was a tiny rotten fragment of a shoe: a woman’s sandal, white with slingbacks.
‘This is where the bodies were,’ said Duke, ‘All piled up, three deep.’
Here’s what happened to the lady in the white slingbacks.
Shortly before dusk, she heard the tannoys blast into life. ‘Alert! Alert! Alert!’ She made her way to the Pavilion. The gunmen had returned from the airstrip, and Jones was calling a meeting. She could see him on his throne, beneath a notice that read: THOSE WHO DO NOT REMEMBER THE PAST ARE CONDEMNED TO REPEAT IT. Over 900 people now pressed towards their leader. He was recording his last great speech, a valedictory. ‘Death is not a fearful thing! It’s living that’s cursed …’
She could also see that there were guards posted around the pavilion, and that the doctor was supervising a concoction of Flavor Aid and chemicals. She didn’t know that these included cyanide and tranquillisers, but she knew that this was no rehearsal. It was the final ‘White Night’, and, this time, even the cooks weren’t exempted from the drill. ‘It’s over, Sister,’ rasps Jones, ‘we’ve made that day! We made a beautiful day …’
Everyone’s frightened, and there’s wailing on the tape. ‘Stops this hysterics!’ snaps Jones, ‘This is not the way for people who are socialist communists to die!’ But it was the children who went first, with a squirt in the mouth from a toxic teat. ‘Take our life from us!’ drones Jones, ‘We got tired. We didn’t commit suicide! We committed an act of revolutionary suicide …’
Then it was the turn of the woman in white shoes. The crowd were still compacted around her. She could hear The Father’s voice above the moans of grief and pain: ‘Die with respect! Die with dignity!’ Few of her friends had disobeyed (and those that had were dragged to the ground and injected with the poison). She’d watched as those around her took their little cups and drank. They’d wince at the powerful industrial taste, and then lie down as they began to feel the breath no longer working in their lungs. It was not an instant death, she’d notice, but a determined, chemical asphyxia. Confused and panicky, she’d gulp down her own dose, and then take her place among her friends. No one would ever know the agonies she’d experienced in those last few minutes. She, like all the others, would be found in an attitude of sleep. It was almost as if they’d just lain down for a moment, not even bothering to remove their shoes.
* * *
A few weeks earlier, I’d met a man who was one of the first outsiders to get to Jonestown, once news of the massacre broke.
Joe Singh, it seemed, had been present at almost every momentous event in modern Guyanese history. As a soldier, he’d quelled revolts, fought the drug gangs, negotiated truces with Amerindians, and beaten off foreign incursions, and then – eventually – taken command of the army. During the African years, this was no mean feat for an Indo-Guyanese. He had the almost unique status of a hero amongst each of the races. People were always writing to the papers asking that he be made president, or that a street be named in his honour. He was, I suppose, the nearest that Guyana had to a national institution. He also happened to be a friend of a friend, and so we agreed to meet.
The secret of his survival was soon obvious. Although Joe was generous and magisterial, with his dark tropical suit and hair like silvery pins, he was also deftly illusive. It was as if he only ever revealed a fraction of what he felt. He didn’t even appear in his own stories very much – nor did anyone alive. Instead, he preferred to foray deep into the past, well out of range of possible ambush. I wondered whether Jonestown was far enough back in the temporal hinterland, and so I asked him. For a moment, I could see him calibrating the possible fallout. As the old Georgetown adage goes, whatever is said today is on the president’s desk tomorrow.
He hesitated. ‘Yes. Of course, I remember. How could anyone forget?’
This is the soldiers’ story:
News of trouble came through that afternoon. By midnight the army had managed to fly some troops to the far end of the ridge. Under the command of Joe Singh – who was then a colonel – they’d marched all night, and reached Port Kaituma at dawn. Later that day, they reached Jonestown.
The sight that greeted them was incomprehensible. At first they thought that the clearing had been strewn with rags, and then they realised they were people. The bodies lay on their fronts, some with dried blood in their nostrils. Jones himself lay on the altar in the Pavilion. He’d not taken poison but had got someone to shoot him, and now his shirt was bloody and pulled up over his head.
It was impossible to count all the bodies, such was the tangle and stench. At first, there seemed to be only four hundred, so a helicopter was sent out with a loudspeaker, urging the others to come in from the forest. ‘We were there some days,’ said Joe, ‘just searching the site.’ Then the bodies were counted again. There were 909, including 276 children. Even the dogs and cows had been poisoned, and Mr Muggs the chimpanzee.
Few survivors emerged. Amongst them was a 76-year-old woman, and a handful of others who’d fled. Strangest of all was the TV presenter, Mike Prokes, who turned up with a gun and a suitcase full of money, and said he was heading for the Soviet embassy (six months later, I discovered, he gave a press conference in a motel in Modesto, and read out a forty-page testament before retreating to the bathroom and shooting himself in the head).
Looters had already begun to prise the place apart. Martial law was imposed. There’d been some curious pickings: spice racks, boxes of Flavor Aid (which no one dared drink) and books donated by the Russians. Meanwhile, Joe’s soldiers would retrieve twenty bows and arrows, thousands of dollars in cash (together with half a million in uncashed welfare cheques), about forty automatic rifles, and a trunk containing 800 American passports. As for the mountains of foul, stained clothes, all the soldiers could do was scrape them into heaps and set them on fire.
The dead had been harder to deal with. It was obvious the soldiers couldn’t cope. There were said to be only thirty body bags in the entire country. What’s more, the heat was relentless, and – as his parting gift – Jones had poisoned all the water. For days nothing happened. When the journalists called by (including Krause, and then, later, Shiva Naipaul), the troops just waved them through at gunpoint. ‘Keep moving! Don’t touch anything!’ they screamed. They’d had as much as they could bear, and now it was time for the United States to come in and scoop up the mess. ‘Well,’ said Joe, defiantly, ‘it was their problem. Jonestown had nothing to Guyana.’ Most Guyanese believed this. As Naipaul put it, in life the disciples of the People’s Temple had been hailed as socialist heroes, and in death they were ‘hopelessly American’.
A few days later another small army arrived. They were specialised battlefield technicians, the people who clear up the pieces once the pruning of humans is done. Under the command of four colonels, they moved among the dead, tagging, heaving, bagging, zipping and boxing. They untangled every corpse and gathered every document. Then they sprayed the clearing with so much disinfectant that – according to pilots – it’s never been quite the same colour again. People like Joe were so astonished at the speed and complexity of the American operation that they began to wonder if they’d prepared it all in advance (‘It was as if they knew something,’ he said, ‘or at least had something to hide’). Then they were gone: a vast dead decampment, shuttled away in relays of Jolly Green Giants.
For the sad, swollen followers of Jones, their ordeal was not, however, over. As I’d soon discover, they had a journey ahead of them that’s never quite come to an end. But it was different for Jonestown itself. Haunted, lifeless and antiseptic, it would now lie empty, probably for ever.
* * *
‘Since that sad day has strucked,’ said Duke, ‘no one has ever lived here.’
We were walking back across the clearing, watched by the hawk. Duke was now deep in thought, and I asked him how the locals had reacted when the town next door had died. He stopped and turned, looking back over the scribble of thorns and rust. At first, it seems, people had hardly given it a thought and seen only a field of booty. ‘Nothing went to waste,’ he said, ‘They took the tin and the windows, and all the timber. There’s still plenty of people in Port Kaituma with bedsheets from Jonestown, or perhaps a couple of chairs. I remember they had a big freezer. It was full of food. Full! I tried it but it was locked …’
We walked on. Others had told me that, once everything portable had gone, the urge to forage was replaced with doubt. No one could quite believe that a town just like theirs – except bigger and richer – had simply self-destructed. A greater agency was at work. Suddenly mythology was sprouting everywhere, like luxurious clumps of forest. Duke himself thought that Jones was mining uranium, and that there were tunnels deep beneath the forest. ‘That why they never found the cement he ordered. Five hundred bags! You see any concrete now?’
I couldn’t. ‘But that’s only two truckloads?’ I tried.
Duke wouldn’t have it, and nor would anyone else. Back in Port Kaituma, I met people who believed that Jones was still alive, that he and his assassins had escaped by plane, and that there was a massive cache of gold. Meanwhile, in Georgetown, it was often assumed that the CIA were involved, and that Jonestown was a dangerous psychological stunt. One politician even told me that the Russians had placed a missile silo there, and they’d all been killed by special forces.
‘So there was no treasure?’ I asked Duke.
‘Nah,’ he sneered, ‘No-one find nothing.’
This wasn’t what everyone said. In fact, Duke’s father was famous for having found $250,000 in cash. His mistake was to tell everybody. He was murdered a few weeks after Jonestown, on the path to Venezuela.
Jonestown carried on killing for years after the massacre. It was a curse, like one of those ghostly plastic gill-nets that breaks free of its trawler and travels the oceans in a state of perpetual slaughter. To begin with, there were the unfinished suicides, such as the woman who trimmed her children’s throats in Lamaha Gardens, or television producer Mike Prokes, who ended it all in Modesto. Then there were the reprisals. Even years after the cult’s demise, defectors were still being hunted down and killed. Perhaps the saddest story of all was that of Bonny Mann, the Guyanese ambassador to the United States. Two years after Jonestown, he discovered that his lover, who was also the mother of his child, was not the girl she said she was. Instead, she’d been planted in his life by the People’s Temple and had recorded all their trysts. As Mann’s world fell apart, he killed both mother and child, before turning the gun on himself.
But it wasn’t just the cult’s survivors who were restless; so were the dead.
‘Ask Caroline George,’ said Big D, ‘Her brother was among them.’
Ah, yes, David George, the Amerindian boy adopted by the Revd Jones.
* * *
Caroline George had a small shop, which sold salt and dried fish, out in Bottom Floor. On my last day, I walked out there and found her stall, up to the eaves in weed. Inside, standing at the counter, was a customer with huge knobbly hands like claws, and a face as wild as the forest. When he heard me mention Jonestown, his eyes widened, and I found myself staring upwards into two great rings of curdled yellow.
‘If you kill one man,’ he growled, ‘you’re a murderer. If you kill nine hundred, you’re a conqueror!’ With that, he tottered imperiously for a moment, and then lurched for the door.
Miss George looked at me without any perceptible expression. She was a short woman, rounded by poverty and thickened by work. Yes, she murmured, she’d tell me what happened. I thanked her, and then I must have hesitated, uncertain what I’d find when I clicked the latch of this person’s grief. She sensed my anxiety, and forced an unhappy smile.
‘I think about Jonestown,’ she said, ‘almost every day of my life.’
A heartless saga emerged. She told me that her mother was a Carib, that she’d been born at the mouth of the river, and that her father had died when she was small. For much of her childhood, she and her siblings had drifted around like human flotsam. They’d fished and begged, and lived on the water. All that they’d had was each other. At some stage, they’d ended up in Port Kaituma, and then into their lives came the Revd Jones. He was adopting Amerindian children and took on three of the siblings: Philip, Gabriella and ‘Baby’ David, who was ten.
‘Jones said he would do better things for them,’ said their sister, ‘They all changed their name to Jones and called him Dad. I think they were happy at first, but we weren’t always allowed to see them.’
Suddenly, her eyes filled with tears.
‘After it all happened, I went up to Jonestown to look for them. I’ll never forget that day. By then, the dead were all black and swelled to a size. I tried to find Baby George and the others, but I couldn’t stomach the smell, and I had to leave. I’ve always imagined that they died in there, but I’ve never known for sure. My mother never recovered from the loss of my brothers and sister, and died soon afterwards. I’d give anything to have them back again. They were beautiful children. I often wonder what happened to their bodies. Someone said they were buried there, but how can anyone tell? Sometimes I feel that they’re still here, and that’s why I stay. I don’t ever want to leave them.’
But Baby George and the others were no longer here, or even in Guyana.
Later, I discovered what had probably become of them. In death, the Amerindians had travelled further than they’d ever dreamt of in life. There were perhaps eight of them altogether, including the pseudo-Joneses, and they’d all have been scooped up in the great American airlift. In Georgetown, this great, long-dead expedition was disembarked, and packed onto transports. They were then flown to Dover in Delaware, where they sat for months in giant refrigerators built for the Vietnam dead. During this time, they were fingerprinted by the FBI and then worked over by some thirty-five pathologists, and twenty-nine morticians. By the end, it was still a mystery who everybody was. Once the relatives had retrieved those they wanted, a bewildering 410 bodies remained behind. Of these, sixty didn’t seem to have any ties at all.
For the Amerindian Joneses, there was still another journey ahead. Boxed up with all the other unclaimed bodies, they were flown to California. There, they were buried in Oakland, in a large, unceremonious mass grave.
* * *
As I flew back to Georgetown, I tried in vain to make sense of all I’d seen. Way below, the forest heaved and blackened like unsettled sky. Great whorls of green gathered together, swelled up, reshaped themselves, formed into vast billowing, black masses of chlorophyll, and then burst, swirling off into the distance. Perhaps Jonestown was like this, I thought: not something made, but a series of random patterns. Take away any single feature from the whole – the diseased prophet, the badlands, the broken discipleship, the bush, and the threadbare state – and the landscape would have looked completely different. In fact, Jonestown would probably never have taken shape at all, and the endpiece vanishes altogether.
But not everyone sees it like this. For many, particularly in America, Jonestown has an inevitable quality, and there’s almost a straight line between the promiscuous Sixties and the tubs of grape-flavoured cyanide. This is to say nothing of the belief that sinister agencies had somehow hustled the tragedy along. Every day on the internet more undergrowth is added to this jungle of myth. Some of it is planted by the descendants of the Temple, but the rest is seeded more despairingly, by those who insist that, in the absence of God, it’s some human authority that determines our fate.
For the Guyanese, there had been no patterns about Jonestown, and nor had it sat at the end of a line. As far as they were concerned, the whole thing had appeared from nowhere, like a visit from Outer Space. But they also knew that, whether they liked it or not, that day had changed them. ‘For months afterwards,’ said Joe, ‘the eyes of the world were upon us.’
But what those eyes had seen had not always been easy to understand: private armies, stacks of Thorazine, a semi-feral theocracy, trunks full of cash, and a Ministry of Hoods. After that, the great South American African, Forbes Burnham, had never quite regained his composure. Was he really a great liberator, or just a despot from the swamps? Six years later, he found himself in the middle of a self-made famine, and – without any antibiotics – he died from a cough. It was the end of the African years, and the beginning of Indian rule. In 1992, Guyana held its first untarnished election for thirty years, and an ailing Cheddi Jegan was hoisted into power.
Jonestown could now be forgotten.
Back in Georgetown the events of 1978 still had people swooning with denial. Even the rebellious Dr Roopnaraine added his voice to the chorus of indignation.
‘It was an American matter,’ he told me, ‘Nothing to do with us.’
But, despite this energetic case of amnesia, Jonestown had proved difficult to bury. Every year, The Stabroek News would unearth the facts and parade them over its pages. It was almost as though readers needed reminding that the Temple was part of their story. Some joked that it was the only part. I once spotted a T-shirt in Stabroek market that depicted a map of Guyana under the heading ‘Sights of interest’. All it featured was Jonestown, marked with a skull and crossbones.
I sometimes wondered if the government had taken this taunt to heart. Only a few years earlier, the Minister of Tourism had suggested that Jonestown be re-opened, to promote ‘dark tourism’. In fairness, every other scheme had failed (including a refugee camp for the Indochinese). But tourism? I remember asking my driver, Ramdat Dhoni, about this, soon after my return. Was it his cup of tea, a resort for the chronically morbid? Would he be booking his grandchildren in, and his son, and Mrs Dhoni?
‘Don’t shit me, man,’ he giggled, ‘You been too long in the bush …’
Had I? I suddenly realised that I’d only been away for a week. It felt like months. Perhaps that was the effect of the bush, to render time endlessly elastic? Perhaps that’s what had finally toppled Jones’ sanity, an affliction like Dorian Gray’s? This was not a particularly comforting thought as I contemplated my next move. The following day, I’d be heading off – back inside – this time far deeper than before.