My Visit to Guyana

by Ron Kohl

When Laura decided to go back to Jonestown, I wanted to go and see what I had heard my wife of 35 years talking about for these years. I wanted to see Guyana and understand the country better. This was an amazing opportunity to go with my wife and son on a very personal and intimate journey that would re-open many memories. I could not miss it!

Most of what I read and heard as I prepared for the trip was that Guyana could be dangerous and difficult to get around. I didn’t know what to expect, and I was apprehensive. On the trip over, we stopped in Trinidad. My seat partner asked me where I was going. I said I was going to Guyana. He said, “Oh, Jonestown, where everyone died in the jungle!” He was not the only one on our trip who had that reaction.

From the moment we flew into Georgetown, all of my anticipated discomfort just evaporated. The smells of the food, the friendliness of the people, and the uncomplicated movement around the airport and all the way into Guyana’s capital city was comforting.

When we got to the hotel, we met up with the rest of the group. I knew Jordan Vilchez, the other survivor. I also knew Richmond Arquette and Rikke Wittendorff. Richmond had done an absolutely amazing job setting up the details of the trip; it would have been a much more difficult journey without him! I did not know Kevin Kunishi, a good friend of Jordan’s, and an international photojournalist.

As we walked around Georgetown, seeing sights familiar to Jordan and Laura, we stopped in a market where everyone bought bottles of water and snacks. I met a big group of Cubans who were allowed to travel to Guyana for weekend shopping trips.

For our first taste of Guyanese food, Laura insisted on her curry and roti (delicious Guyanese bread). I got into a conversation with the restaurant owner who used to live in New York. I told her about Laura and Jordan being Jonestown survivors and she wanted to meet them. Her sister worked for the local newspaper, and she wanted to interview the two of them. The interview – the first of many – took place that very night, and the article was published the following Sunday.

We split up and took a couple of taxi rides around the city. Our driver was working part time; his full-time work was with the Guyana Defense Force. Laura gave him one of her books, and she is in touch with him on Facebook even now.

Celebrating a birthday in Guyana

Georgetown is like all other cities. There are safe places, and there are less safe places. People were wonderfully friendly and helpful, curious yet still respectful. People of Guyana are primarily people of color. Our integrated group didn’t even get a second glance. We were immediately accepted and included.

Very early the next morning, we took a one-hour flight to Port Kaituma. About 14 passengers fit on the plane, with very little extra room for luggage. Luckily, we had left some of our belongings back at the hotel where we planned to return after our trip into the interior. The pilot was silent, and made no announcements. The flight took us briefly over the ocean, and then all the rest of the way in was pure rainforest. We followed the interior river. When we landed at the airstrip, we were met by quite a crowd of people curious about who we were. The word spread, and people greeted us graciously.

The village of Port Kaituma was pretty primitive, with dirt roads, rutted and muddy from constant rains. Vehicular traffic was light, and I noticed many people walking. The structures seemed sound enough. I saw large houses on the outskirts and other shacks. It was interesting that a lot of the cars were new and fancy. There were obviously some people with money. The town was also very noisy. Music was playing in the bars and shops to attract workers from the local gold mines and other construction workers and residents.

Before setting off for Jonestown, we had a quick lunch in Kaituma. Some of the shops had food, and you picked from what was already prepared. When it ran out, you would get something else.

We headed out to Jonestown. Most of that road was graded and well-maintained, which surprised me after seeing Port Kaituma. The road between Matthews Ridge and Port Kaituma has been upgraded because of the increased commerce with the gold discovery and other mining.

All of us traveled in the same van. The driver who took us frequently takes visitors to the area. Along the way, we picked up the two guides who had been the original guides and supervisors when the early Jonestown settlers arrived in 1975. About seven miles from Kaituma, we turned off the main road onto a dirt path and drove another 1500 feet. We were at Jonestown’s entrance, now only a bit of a clearing.

We started walking into the bush. The path was overgrown, uneven with hills and dips, and slippery. The first thing we found was the pit area that was the original refrigeration unit area. We also passed a rusted-out car with a tree growing through the center, and some metal boxes. We had to make sure we followed the guides, since there was really no path. We had to stay in sight of them at all times.

As we neared the former pavilion area, we came upon an enormous black wasp nest. It was loud and scary. We decided to find an alternate path to get through. It was very hot and steamy, and we were all covered up to protect ourselves from insects.

We finally arrived at the monument. The area around it was cleared out some from another recent trip. I was surprised at how large and intact it was, in the middle of dense jungle.

Under the rainforest canopy, it was impossible to tell where you were. Old photos did not help because there were no markers from what used to be there. We lingered at the monument for a few minutes, reminiscing with the guides. They had clear recollections of so many events and people from Jonestown’s early years. In the area, we were mostly quiet, though, in reflection.

While the rest of the group traipsed around looking for more familiar spots, Laura and I stayed around the monument by ourselves for a bit. She journaled and sat or stood quietly. I stayed close by. I wasn’t comfortable walking off with the rest of the group since the area was so isolated, plus it was difficult walking through the bush.

When everyone came back a half hour later, Jordan and Rikke buried some artifacts that Jordan wanted to leave in Jonestown. We took pictures and shared the silence and reverence of the area. Finally, we headed out to the van. We went to a nearby grocery store and ate our picnic there, before dropping off our guides and heading back into Port Kaituma.

After dinner, we went to the Community Center for an open community forum. We invited anyone interested in listening or asking questions. Richmond got us into the center, and the Kaituma residents came and sat around us. There were probably about 50 people altogether. They asked a lot of questions, about tunnels in Jonestown, and if Jim Jones survived, and about the gold we found. After the session ended, a number of people hung around to get to know us better, asking more questions. Several hugged Laura and Jordan. They were so curious about us all. But actually, that was our experience throughout our tine in Kaituma. As we all walked around town, people would engage us in conversation. They were delighted to meet us and to befriend us. And they had so many questions.

I tried to change money at the bank from US to Guyanese currency. The bank said it could not make the transaction. I had to find a guy named “China” who was able to change any money to Guyanese. His distant relatives were from China. He also sold gold and mining equipment, among other things, at his hardware store.

We also met a woman whom Jordan had known. She had gone to Jonestown as a child, and had artifacts and fond memories from her trips there.

We went to the docks to take the boat to Mabaruma. It was a 50-mile ride on the narrow rivers. The boat was full, with every seat taken. We even had a policeman escorting a prostitute back to Venezuela. The river was very choppy and we were moving very fast, like a speed boat. The river was like a highway, with kids rowing to school in school uniforms, and with boats carrying freight, boxes, equipment, construction materials, etc. It was two hours of a bumpy ride. In the middle, we had a sudden shower, and we realized why our boat had a cover.

We arrived at Mabaruma and walked about a mile to our hotel. Next time, I am taking a taxi. We stayed overnight and met government officials and other interesting people. Jordan had worked in a Peoples Temple store there many years ago, so she went out exploring and revisiting spots she remembered. We had a delicious family meal that night. Laura and I had the “special” room with a malfunctioning air conditioner. It was the only hotel that had mosquito netting.

The next morning, we flew from Mabaruma back to Georgetown. We had to weigh in, and weigh our luggage to board the small plane. It was very tight! But it was a good flight and everyone was in good spirits. None of the passengers got upset about any discomfort.

That night, we went to dinner at the Pegasus Hotel. Laura and Jordan had been to the Pegasus when they lived in Georgetown forty years ago. There were a lot of memories of the Pegasus, and people who came to Guyana to visit Jonestown often stayed there. Congressman Leo Ryan had stayed there with his entourage while waiting to fly out to Jonestown. After the deaths in Jonestown, survivors, relatives, reporters, and American government officials flooded the place. Among the people the night of our stay was someone whose uncle had been the maitre d’ when Congressman Ryan visited.

The next morning after breakfast, Laura and I went to the local emergency room to get some relief for an allergic reaction she got from her boots. It was very crowded, but we saw great experts who prescribed meds. We went across the street and filled the prescription. It was all very simple, within walking distance of our hotel, and quick.

Afterwards, we went as a group to the Guyana Public Library and donated fifteen books about Peoples Temple and Jonestown. The staff wanted a lot of photos, and they were delighted by the donations. The Head Librarian wanted all of her staff to meet us all, especially Laura and Jordan.

We split up after that, and Laura and I went to the Walter Rodney Archive and donated several books written by Eusi Kwayana about Walter Rodney and about Jonestown. The staff there was delighted also.

Jordan and Laura had several interviews scattered during our last few days in Georgetown, including with some independent contractors for TV spots and one with the Director of the Guyana Library for his weekly television program.

The week ended with a final dinner together as a group, and the next morning, Friday, March 9, Laura, Raul and I flew out of Guyana and came back to San Diego.

In looking back, I believe that the trip was very helpful for the people we met and a kind of a healing for us. We got to revisit the past and see the space and meet the people. It felt like a segment of my life that I needed to complete. I also came to realize how much the nation of Guyana was impacted. As little as has been done to weave the lessons of Jonestown into the fabric of America, even less has been done in that South American country. I believe that we owe the nation and its people an enormous apology.

Last modified on October 11th, 2018.
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