Can Ghosts Bring Life to Jonestown Cult Compound?

The New York Times/May 2, 2010

Jonestown, Guyana - Carlton Daniels was sweating as he sliced through the jungle with his cutlass. He pointed at some bushes and said a chimpanzee named Mr. Muggs had once lived there in a cage. Then he emerged in a clearing, proclaiming, "Welcome to the People's Temple Agricultural Project."

Better known as Jonestown, where more than 900 Americans committed suicide or were murdered one night in 1978 at the behest of the cult leader Jim Jones, the site yields few signs of remembrance. Rains, termites and scavengers have laid waste to its buildings. Vines camouflage its rusting vehicles, including an old flatbed truck and a tractor.

But while nature seems intent on erasing the utopian experiment that went tragically awry here, some enterprising souls in Guyana, South America's only English-speaking nation, have another idea. They want Jonestown reborn as a tourist destination and are even getting some tepid help from the government, which spent more than 30 years largely trying to live it down.

Indranauth Haralsingh, director of the Guyana Tourism Authority, came here late last year to put up a plaque saying, "In memory of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy, November 18, 1978, Jonestown, Guyana."

Some who live on Jonestown's edge, in the squalid mining town of Port Kaituma, could not be happier.

"Something more ambitious, a full-blown memorial of sorts, should have been founded years ago," said Mr. Daniels, 64, a wiry shopkeeper who ranks among Port Kaituma's top authorities on Jonestown, having met Mr. Jones on different occasions as a postal agent here in the 1970s.

"Imagine," Mr. Daniels said in a lilting West Indian accent while relating how Mr. Jones's pet chimpanzee, Mr. Muggs, was used to terrorize disobedient followers, "Jonestown could become a world-renowned center for the study of cults and what makes them tick."

Poverty offers another motivation for those trying to move ahead with tourism at Jonestown. Despite recent economic growth, the country, whose official name remains the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, is still recovering from the doctrinaire isolationism that made it the ideal place for Mr. Jones to establish his remote utopian enclave.

"Jonestown was actually a wonderful place," said Gerald Gouveia, 54, who as a young army pilot would fly senior Jonestown members to Port Kaituma. "They were hard-working idealists who wanted a community free from nuclear destruction, but their dream got twisted when they placed their leader in such reverence that it got to his brain."

Mr. Gouveia, now one of Guyana's top businessmen, wants to take visitors to Jonestown on his small airline. He flies his own planes, and on a trip to Port Kaituma he pointed out the spot on the airstrip where Leo J. Ryan, a congressman from California who came to investigate abuse claims in Jonestown, was shot dead by cult gunmen. Three journalists and a defector were also killed in the encounter.

Those killings put into motion the exhortation by Mr. Jones that culminated in his night of mass suicide and murder.

"I myself placed the American congressman's corpse in the body bag," Mr. Gouveia said. "We can't just erase from our consciousness the events that transpired here, as that would be an insult to all the victims who perished in this place."

Talk first surfaced a few years ago about promoting Jonestown, a strategy that people here call "dark tourism." One New York investor even drew up an investment plan with a Jonestown survivor to create a 10-acre project including a museum, a restaurant, a cafe, a souvenir shop and living quarters for employees.

But the project, which would require government approval, has not materialized. Some Guyanese ascribe this to Jonestown's remoteness. Officials are also reluctant to draw attention to Jonestown, trying instead to retool Guyana's image as a responsible environmental steward, most recently through a deal in which Norway pays Guyana to preserve forests.

"The government's green initiatives," said David Dabydeen, Guyana's delegate to Unesco, "redeem us from a crime which was overwhelmingly committed by Americans on Americans."

Asked about plans for tourism at Jonestown during an interview in Georgetown, Samuel Hinds, Guyana's prime minister, said, "It's something I could live with." He added, "I know there are people talking about restoration, but it would probably have to be a total recreation from pictures."

Some scholars who are trying to explain Jonestown to new generations say commercial tourism at the site would constitute disrespect for its victims.

"Jim Jones was a master manipulator who created a siege mentality," said Julia Scheeres, a California author who is writing a history of Jonestown. "Let the place be a peaceful field covered with flowers."

For now, Jonestown seems plucked from Alan Weisman's "The World Without Us," a book that imagines how the remnants of civilization would crumble as nature reclaimed land freed from man's grasp. The forbidding bush stands in contrast to the muddy roads of Port Kaituma, about seven miles away, bustling with pork-knockers (miners, in Guyanese English), gold-buying shops, flophouses and brothels.

"We'd like some diversification, and that's where tourism would fit in," said Dane Peters, 46, owner of Port Kaituma's Beacon's Hotel. He said he built the plaque at Jonestown last year to attract visitors. "We need to start somewhere, with something small," he said.

At another boarding house, the Triple-R Sky View International Hotel, the owner, Rio Cadorna, agreed about Jonestown's potential. "What this area really needs is a casino," said Mr. Cadorna, 64, an immigrant from the Philippines. "We could justify it if we had some high-quality foreign visitors flowing in."

Yet while Port Kaituma's merchants dream of riches, the task of memorializing Jonestown still falls largely on Mr. Daniels, the former postal agent.

He witnessed Jonestown's rise and fall, arriving here in 1962 as a servant at the country club for British engineers who once mined manganese in the area. The British, along with their grounds for playing badminton and lawn tennis, are long gone now, too, Mr. Daniels pointed out.

"The bush swallows everything," he said, swinging his cutlass at a barbed plant he called iguana's tail. He delved into Jonestown minutiae, explaining that it was not actually Kool-Aid used to mix Mr. Jones's cyanide potion but a knockoff called Flavor Aid.

At one spot, Mr. Daniels stopped and seemed to have a chill run down his spine, despite the blistering heat. He said that was where a sign once hung, above Mr. Jones's throne, in Jonestown's pavilion. It read, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

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