I burned through a pack of cigarettes in less than three hours. I’m not a smoker, but I didn’t know what else to do with my hands. Holding the young girl pressed against my side trying to sell herself to me was not an option. “Don’t touch!” was the first given rule. “We don’t exploit the exploited.”
One American pop song after the other blasts in the background of Passions To Go. First Usher, then Macklemore, now Katy Perry. The tub is filling with bubbles and bodies while speakers spit out the words to “Firework”.
Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
Drifting through the wind
Wanting to start again
Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin
Like a house of cards
One blow from caving in
Do you ever feel already buried deep
Six feet under scream
But no one seems to hear a thing
Do you know that there's still a chance for you
'Cause there's a spark in you
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July
'Cause baby you're a firework
Come on show 'em what your worth
Make 'em go "Oh, oh, oh!"
This scene, those lyrics and the girl plastered to my rib-bones make me feel like I landed on some kind of twisted planet, in the middle of someone’s sick idea of a punchline. Where is this dimension? How did I get here? What is my name? My hands are not my hands, my fingers are a far-flung foreign land, my limbs are affixed to a body I don’t recognize, and I’m spinning on a world I can’t fathom. My self doesn't know my self in a brothel where slaves are made from the stuff of desperate, duped parents and kidnapped kids.
Maybe it was the bizarre combination of sensation that compelled me, or the pressure in my chest wanting to wage war against wall-to-wall wrongness, but within 30 minutes I subconsciously broke the first rule by reaching for her. I reached for her, tucked her to my breast, and silently begged her heart to feel the rhythm of mine. I’m a mother with three sons, she is my daughter. Her physique shows the signs of early adolescence. I can tell by what she isn’t wearing.
It’s been two years, but I can still travel back there, feel her in my arms, and hear myself screaming inside. I still know how I imagined opening my skin and stuffing her in. GET INSIDE ME! I’LL SMUGGLE YOU FREE! was the irrational refrain of my brain.
Never did I imagine one week of my life would find me brothel-hopping in SE Asia, learning how investigators find trafficked children hidden among the hordes of humans buying and selling flesh in the underbelly of the world’s blackest beast.
Never did I imagine I’d have to “look the part” of a role I no way wanted to play; gut laughing, chain smoking, gin drinking, “Erika, keep smiling! You’re having a good time!” They keep reminding me because I keep forgetting to be careless, animated, amoral.
Investigators for The Exodus Road are the masters of this illusion; smoke and mirror, hocus pocus, sleight of hand. They have honed the craft of collecting evidence against pimps and mamasans without abusing a single body in the process. I just tried my best not to muddle up their masquerade.
And so it went, night after night: neon lights, loud music, ladyboys, little girls, SMILE!, pass the cigarettes, have another drink, have a good time, SMILE!, don’t touch! Watch the stages and players, pawns and broken pieces. See the lonely men and frat packs from the West high-fiving each other between brothels and bartering. Don’t forget to smile! Keep your hands full. Put your bleeding heart back inside your chest. Stop shaking. Look the part. SMILE! Do the work.
Write the story.
We live in a world where people want children to serve their bent pleasures. It should not be so, but because it is we need organizations like The Exodus Road who specialize in finding trafficked sons and daughters concealed amid the misery and ruckus. This is a story about funding investigative work; donating your hard-earned dollars to buy cigarettes so someone can look the part. Collect the footage. Gather the data. Log the details. Rescue 1 more beloved body from the fist of modern day slavery.
The Exodus Road is looking for 100 more monthly “Search and Rescue” donors at $35 each, but listen: $35 is considerable amount for a lot people. So. Let’s make an additional option. Austin and I give $18 to almost every “ask” that crosses our path. Why? Because 18 is the Hebrew number for “LIFE”. When we give $18, it’s not just to support a nonprofits’ overhead. We send this specific money amount with prayer and intention; gestures of imparting LIFE into Kingdom Come and good work being done. Somehow, with magic, there’s always $18 more dollars. There’s always LIFE to give and resources to share in true loaves and fishes fashion. 200 donors at $18 each is more than the same as 100 at $35! Wanna join us? Let’s do a damn thing: