Visiting Jonestown, The People’s Temple.
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
These words by Spanish philosopher George Santayana were written above the throne of Jim Jones, cult leader of The People’s Temple in Jonestown, located deep in the jungles of Guyana.
On November 18th, 1978, 909 followers killed themselves in what was then called the biggest mass suicide of the modern era. One third of the victims were children.
History now sees it as a twisted combination of mass suicide and mass murder. It was a truly tragic event in history and a repulsive insight into the ability of Jones’ persuasive cult of personality to control a vulnerable group of people. The quote is a fitting reminder to the dangers of loyally following charismatic leaders without question.
Although Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide was used as the execution method, the expression “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” has become a pop culture warning that one should question rather than blindly follow along with others. It’s unfortunate that in this era of social media disinformation, people are not following this advice more seriously. Jim Jones himself was killed by a bullet to the head.
Divine principles. Total equality. A society where people own all things in common, where there is no rich or poor, where there are no races.
This was Jim Jones’ motto for Jonestown. The ultimate goal was to build a peaceful self-sufficient society, free from class struggles, sexism and racial discrimination. Originally based on Jones’ twisted version of that era’s socialist principles, in many small ways it was initially successful, until it ultimately descended into the inconceivable madness that we hear of today.
The People’s Temple was formed in Indiana in 1955 and moved to California in the mid 1960’s. Jones saw their progressive liberal attitudes as a better environment in which to grow the church. Political pressure in the early 1970’s in combination with Jones’ increased paranoia of American society had Jones looking for alternative locations. Eventually they settled on Guyana, most likely due to a combination of their socialist policies, lack of extradition to the US and the ability to influence the local government of a developing nation.
I remember reading about Jonestown and The People’s Temple Agricultural Project when I was 13 years old and borrowed a book from the school library on mind control. Rather than teaching me how to force my mother to give me more McDonald’s and ice cream, it was based on specific psychological mass brainwashing events in history. I decided to read it anyway.
Some of the main topics were Hitler and Nazi Germany, The Manson Family and of course, Jonestown – which is the first I had heard of it. Currently, there are frighteningly clear parallels to modern political events, making Jones’ quote favourite quote more appropriate than ever. Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
So, when I found myself in Guyana as part of a South American trip, I decided to try to find what remained of the settlement. I was in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, which is an interesting and colourful ex-colonial capital. A true melting pot of South American, Caribbean and colonial cultures.
It was the early 2000’s and there were not a lot of internet cafes in town and even after I found one, there wasn’t a lot of information online anyway. I decided to try my luck with the few local travel agencies, but none of them knew what I was talking about.
My next stop was to visit the Government Office for Tourism in Guyana. I walked into the office and was surprised that within 30 minutes I had a meeting with a tourism board staff member. Unfortunately, she had only remotely heard of Jonestown and had never heard of anyone visiting there. She agreed that although it wasn’t the type of thing they tried to promote, that she would make a few calls to see if anyone knew how to get there.
This did not lead anywhere, but in the meantime we figured out roughly where it was on the map from some of the info I had previously researched on the internet. We were able to determine that the closest town is Port Kaituma, a mining town in the west of the country. It unfortunately is completely inaccessible by road, only by a flight or a week long boat trip down the river. The plan was to fly there and ask around to see if anyone knew where it was. She helped get me in touch with an “airline” running charter flights on board an old 8-seater airplane to Port Kaituma for the local mining companies.
So I headed to the airfield to buy/bribe my way onto a flight. This was more straight-forward than I expected and I was on a flight the next morning.
After boarding, the pilot’s safety check consisted of saying to the passengers “anyone with a gun, please pass it to the front.”
I was the only one who did not have a gun.
Everyone looked at me with mistrust in their eyes.
At least I felt much safer with all of the guns sitting out in the open between the pilot and co-pilot.
After some stunning scenery flying over the expansive jungles, we skidded to a halt on the muddy landing strip in Port Kaitamu. The same landing strip where US Senator Leo Ryan and 4 others were killed during the final day of The People’s Temple in 1978. The senator was investigating complaints against Jonestown which led to the gruesome massacre.
I stayed at the one recommended hotel in town that locals assured me was not a brothel. It was not. In fact, to my relief, it was run by a lovely local family and I was treated wonderfully.
The hotel guests shared mealtimes together and dinner was fresh and home cooked. Amazing. I asked about Jonestown and although people remembered it, they did not have a lot to do with the community. The People’s Temple was self-sufficient and kept to themselves except when trading at the market or picking up fresh supplies from the river. When I asked how many tourists visited they told me “Oh we get lots! There was a tourist here a few years ago if I remember correctly.”
The hotel owner arranged a truck and driver who “I could trust.” We left the next morning passing through the mining town of Port Kaitamu. It was truly like something out of the movies and had a real Wild West feel to it. Drinking, violence, prostitutes and general insanity everywhere. And it was only breakfast time.
We drove past the local church whose pastor was there for years. I was informed that he was having a difficult time building his congregation due to the local mistrust of outside influences and their similarities (at least to them) with Jonestown. While the locals knew very little about the The People’s Temple, there were a lot of stories, myths and superstitions surrounding it which, according to my driver, have become exaggerated over the years.
After a short time in town, my driver suggested that we head out on the road before someone tries to fight me. Good advice.
It took over 3 hours on some horrible bumpy and muddy roads used for mining and logging. We met some miners on the way but they were not exactly welcoming as they were suspicious of my reasons for being there. I was even accused of being a terrorist at one point, so my driver thought it was best to continue without stopping again. More good advice.
We eventually made it to where the people’s Temple used to be.
Unsurprisingly, it was a jungle.
The entrance was overgrown and there was no way I would have found the entrance path without my driver. We drove down a small path until the jungle became too dense to drive further. Machetes got us through and we eventually arrived at a clearing which had obvious signs of previous human habitation.
It was as overgrown as you can imagine after years of being completely ignored. If you’ve seen the horrific photos of the aftermath of the mass suicide/killing, you can understand why the locals would want to stay well away.
At first there was not a lot to see. Following the Jonestown massacre, most of the materials making up the compound were taken by townspeople and recycled into their homes and every day lives. The jungle did the rest and quickly took back what it rightfully owns.
We spent the next few hours exploring the area and slowly started to uncover some of the history that was hidden over time.
We found an area with old medical supplies – broken medicine bottles, syringes, etc.
Trucks, overturned and scrapped of parts.
Mango, bamboo and tangerine trees completely out of place for this area of the jungle.
It was a humid, cloudy miserable day which matched the grim, unsettling feeling of walking through what essentially is an open air memorial to all of those who died here. Both my guide and I were quite emotional with those awful images of the hundreds of bodies draped over each other in our head and were surprised that more hasn’t been done to remember them.
The most interesting find is what looked like an old water container bearing the words “The People’s Temple”. This might be the last remaining evidence bearing the name of what was here.
Another interesting find was an old baseball mitt. Surprisingly in pretty good condition.
My driver told me a local story about the excessive amount of cement that was brought into the temple. The townspeople remember seeing it being brought in by river and then transported to the temple. However, no large concrete structures exist. Local legend has it that tunnels were built under the area to hide millions of dollars in treasure. But I find this hard to believe since none of the remaining survivors have mentioned it.
After quite a few hours there, it was time to head home and bring an end to one of the most interesting adventures I’ve ever been a part of. Probably my second favourite urbex along with the abandoned nuclear power plant in Cuba. I’ve read since that there may be a monument there now. However small, I hope this helps give some of the remaining survivors a sense of closure.
If you do not know the full details of the story of Jonestown, I urge you to check out some of the extensive material available on the internet. A good place to start is Jeff Guinn’s Road to Jonestown or Tim Reiterman’s Raven, a reporter who accompanied Senator Ryan on the fateful trip to Jonestown.
PBS also made an excellent documentary and although it’s slightly dated, I feel it gives not only the complete history of events but also emotional eyewitness insight on what the temple was about and how it’s aftermath has affected former members and their families.
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