The shards of my own spiritual wanderings often rise up inside me like secondhand hallucinations. The drugged out trips of the 60s that led me to Sufi dancing; Hindu chanting; new age enneagrams; Taoist breathing; Gurdjieffian and African "stop" exercises, Kriya, Hatha, Siddha, Raja and Kundalini Yogas, Indian ashrams; analysis; Peruvian and Native American shamanism - and the reverse: cynicism and despair, the deluded excesses of Hollywood, exploiting the intimacies of the psyche under the brightly colored banner of entertainment. Failing to help exorcise the demons of America. In fact, increasing them. Then numbing solipsism rescued by the road again. . . India, Nepal, East and West. L.A. New York. Greenland, Australia and Peru. North and South. Cape Breton and Nicaragua. And always, in between, banging around the states with Dharma caravans. Sitting, practicing, failing to practice, being initiated into tantras and sutras, exposed, transmitted, empowered by inner secrets and revelations beyond my comprehension. Saying prayers, whispering prayers, yelling prayers, sleeping through prayers, dropping out, coming back, leaving again, hanging in, taking and breaking and retaking vows, burned out by Dharma centers and Tibetan politics. Why? Why not? And who cares?

In Thailand there are over a quarter of a million monks and twice as many prostitutes. Chatri is researching a film about a young prostitute from northern Thailand whose father sold her to a brothel when she was 14, apparently a common transaction among the poverty-stricken hill tribes. Most girls send money home, and more than three-quarters of them, according to Chatri, will be dead of AIDS in three or four years. And yet this commerce goes on.

We check out one of the rooms: a rounded bed with a round mirror overhead, a bidet in corner -- everything neat and arranged.

We have Cokes in a darkly lit coffee shop while one of the girls demonstrates for us how she slips on a condom without the customer knowing it's on. Taking the condom out of her purse in one fluid motion, she blows it up and places it smoothly over a salt shaker. She smiles sadly.

Sometimes a customer refuses to wear a condom, and then she either jerks him off or gives him a blow job. She is eighteen, bored and very professional. She has no regrets. It's a living. "Karma," Chartri explains matter-of-factly. "Nothing one can do. And yet, like many Thais, he exists easily within many cultural contradictions, publicizing AIDS with his film and newspaper interviews, spending time in hospitals with AIDS patients, even carrying condoms on his key chin complete with instructions and information about this epidemic, which has already claimed millions of lives in this country.

Girls and their clients eat in the brothel's coffee shop, as well as on this particular night, a table full of Japanese businessmen, two intensely animated drug dealers, a Polish tour group watching CNN on the huge TV, an abandoned drag queen, and a neighborhood family celebrating their daughter's birthday. . .

We visit a few other clubs. The most beautiful girls I have ever seen are dancing in white French lace brass and bikini underwear on top of a circular bar, their movements bored and solipsistic as they gently sway their hips to Diana Ross and the Supremes. They wear plastic tags around their necks with large numbers so that they can be easily identified. They also wear pendants on silver and gold chains engraved with images of the Buddha, which they can only take off when they are servicing a customer.

Another club offers a live sex show performed by a bored young couple assuming three or four sexual positions in rapid succession. Afterward, the girl smokes a cigarette between the lips of her vagina. In another act, her partner, a handsome boy dressed in black leather, cracks a whip over her ass. They are a married couple. The man is a high school teacher during the day, a sex performer at night. He makes more in one week at the club than a year teaching school. . . But the burnout is extreme. He has to "get it up" eight times a day and doesn't know how long he can keep doing it.

In a dark, low-ceilinged bar packed wall to wall with customers, Charti speaks to the owner, a plump man in a white suit smoking a huge cigar. The owner motions to one of the girls, who climbs on top of the bar, takes off her bikini briefs, and sticks a large crayon up her vagina. Placing a piece of paper underneath her, she moves her pelvis around, writing "I love you Rudy" in big red letters. Then she hands me the paper. When I offer her some money, she refuses. "It is a gift."

- Rudy Wurlitzer -

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