The small village of Jonestown is located in a remote corner of the South American country of Guyana. This was also the location of the People’s Temple cult organisation founded in California and led by Jim Jones. On November 18th 1978, a mass suicide took place where a total of 918 members died. On the 3rd March 2014, I visited Jonestown and recorded my trip and thoughts in a diary I kept throughout my journey across Latin America, Africa and Europe entitled, ‘Travel Journal Of A Lost Soul’.
3rd March 2014
Today was a solid hi-octane day. I must have experienced at least three such days like this on this trip. There was my refusal to travel from San Cristobal de las Casas to Panajachal by shuttle bus opting instead for an odyssey involving countless chicken buses and never-ending bus stops. Then there was the ten hour speedboat trip from Carti to Carpugana. There may as well have been a hole in the boat with the amount of water that got through. And did I already mention the road from Lethem to Georgetown?
I woke up this morning at 4.45am. I was on and off last night. I can’t remember the last time I had to rise at such an hour. My taxi was scheduled to arrive at my guesthouse at 5.45am. I waited patiently outside. After over ten minutes there was still no sign of it. Fortunately, the guesthouse owner was awake and made another call. A taxi swiftly arrived and I arrived at Georgetown’s Ogle airport with more time than I expected before my plane left for the town of Mabaruma. The plane was made of cards. Some screws were missing and the upholstery on the plane seats was collapsing. I thought to myself if I am ever going to die young it might just happen within the next hour. Was I tempting fate with my visit to Jonestown?
Despite my initial anxiety, the journey went OK with minimal turbulence. When I arrived in Mabaruma my original plan was to spend the day here before taking a boat to Port Kaituma in the mid-late afternoon. I think I saw all there was to see in Mabaruma in less time than a Ramones song. I saw a school. Then another school. Then a rusty disused tractor followed by a Seventh Day Adventist church and an abandoned smashed up saloon car. I was told that there would be a boat leaving for Port Kaituma at 9.30am. Furthermore, it was the only one until the next day. I hurried into the colectivo going to the port like someone trying to outrun a tsunami.
Not much going down in Mabaruma
Arriving in quite possibly the filthiest and most dilapidated ‘port’ I’d ever witnessed in my life, I am introduced to the young captain who tells me the fare will be 6,000 Guyanese dollars ($30). It is only an hour journey and I develop a paranoia (which may or may not be justified) that he’s giving me the Gringo rate. My anger combined with the impossible heat and humidity and depressed location send me on an epic internal rage where I start cursing my surroundings. Seeing all the mountains of trash in the already despoiled and poisoned dock waters makes my veins explode. I think to myself if God ever wanted to send me to hell, he’d kick my ass all the way here at the drop of a stone. As my mind slowly cooled and I develop the gift of perspective, I realise the boat fare is a small price to pay just to leave.
On departing, the captain revs the boat to full power. I grip on to all my things for dear life. We are going at supersonic speed against the river current and I feel as if I am sitting on the wing of a jet in motion. I keep my head down at all times with my mind on the prize of arriving in Port Kaituma. The full force of the air is enough to tear my head off.
The dock of Port Kaituma; an environmental catastrophe
When I finally arrive in the dock of Port Kaituma, I am greeted by a heap of floating plastic bottles, empty crisp packets and oil spillages. This is bad, but it doesn’t compare to Marabuma dock, which was a disgrace. Port Kaituma is small and over compact. Everything seems to be hanging on a thread here. I do my best to avoid the mud of the numerous dirt paths. I envisage all sleeping options in this town to be fleabags. But I get lucky when I stumble upon an Indian-run guesthouse with comfortable air conditioned rooms (AC here is a damn pre-requisite). After I’ve registered, I ask the Indian lady about visiting Jonestown, located just a few miles away. She tells me that she knows of someone who may be able to take me there. A few minutes later at the entrance of the guesthouse I am greeted by a burley Amerindian man named Wesley. He is a man of some stranding as the Head of Social Security Services in the local government of Port Kaituma. For a reasonable fee he offers to drive and accompany me to Jonestown from the guesthouse and back on his red quadbike. He tells me other modes of transportation are out of the question in order to access the site.
My guide Wesley on his demolition machine. I clung to the back grills
I sit on the metal bar grid on the side of the quadbike. The dirt road between Port Kaituma and Jonestown is not fit for any vehicle save for the hardiest of trucks and 4x4s. Every time we go over the multitude of dirt road bumps my poor behind gets bashed more and more into a coma. The palms of my hands are raw from perpetually holding onto the metal bars. The last place I want to spend long stretches of my life is in a Port Kaituma hospital. I would rather drink the poisoned laced punch like the other poor fuckers of the People’s Temple. Even though the journey lasts less than an hour it feels more painful than just about any other journey I’ve undertaken in my life. Fortunately, the road becomes smoother and very soon we approach the entrance with the infamous sign, ‘Welcome To The Peoples Temple Jonestown’. Driving past the sign and into the bush off the main road, we frequently have to battle stubborn overgrowth. Wesley tells me that for a long time nobody came to visit the site. He says that just a few years ago, the path was clear and unaffected by overgrown vegetation. At many intervals, my head, arms and legs are duffed up by an abundance of thorns and twisted vines. One of the vines is so stubborn it nearly yanks me off the bike.
At the entrance to the People’s Temple in Jonestown
Soon we arrive at the sight of a tall white memorial plaque dedicated to all the victims of the massacre. Over 900 bodies were strewn all around the complex on that fateful day in November 1978. What makes this visit even more poignant was listening to the last seven minutes of the ‘Death Tapes’ on YouTube. Amongst all the background sounds of young children crying and sombre music, Jim Jones is telling all the mothers to ‘stop this nonsense’ along with ‘you are getting the kids all excited’. This is followed by his immortal words; ‘we are committing an act of revolutionary suicide against this inhumane cruel world.’
Jim Jones’ truck camouflaged by vegetation and decay
A defunct generator once belonging to the People’s Temple
We walk more into the bush where numerous artefacts from that time are discovered such as a generator, a wheel and Jones’ truck, all rusted and decayed. After the mass suicides, many things were looted and only very few relics of that time remain. I ponder over the setting. The uber – remoteness of this location. Even though Guyana for many will always be associated with the tragic events which took place here, this site reminds me of a place long forgotten and neglected. Despite its messy, barbaric and tyrannical history there is something very peaceful about this place. Perhaps this is the eternal calm and stillness after the apocalyptic storm. Jim Jones, though his name and legend live on, is dead as Dillinger. Thus, there is also a peculiar sense of safety here, like it will never again be tainted by evil and bad times. I stop and remain silent here for several minutes just listening to the sounds of the jungle. I record this stillness in the shape of a few short video clips.
Jim Jones; leader of the People’s Temple
Aftermath of the mass suicide from November 1978
On the journey back to town it rains heavily. I am happy when I return to my room and equally happy that I have my flight booked to return to Georgetown early next morning. There is load reggae music playing on the floor below. Yet I am so battered and broken that my body simply shuts down until my mobile phone alarm goes off the next day.
By Nicholas Peart
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