Offbeat bus tours uncover the esoteric side of LA

Ask anyone what first comes to mind when they think of Los Angeles, and he or she will mention the glitz and the glam, the celebrity tabloids, Hollywood mansions and palm tree-lined freeways.

But the more experienced Angelenos might tell you a different story, one involving obscure religious organizations and spiritual sites unknown and unheard of to the public.

For $58 a ticket, the tour company Esotouric will take you on a guided bus adventure visiting these peculiar religious sites in the greater Los Angeles area.

The tour, called “Maja’s Mysteries: A Magical Excursion into Secret Los Angeles,” is one of many guided excursions offered by Esotouric, which specializes in exposing the truths about everything from rock ’n’ roll history to true crime to Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski.

Founded in May 2007 by a couple of UC Santa Cruz graduates, Esotouric bus adventures mix the knowledge of renowned lecturers and theorists with a few unexpected spoonfuls of fictional quirkiness to educate both newcomers and natives about the rich culture of a city too often dismissed as superficial and soulless.

“Maja’s Mysteries” began in Downtown Los Angeles at Clifton’s Cafeteria on the corner of 7th Street and Broadway where a small woman named Chinta wrote out the nametags of passengers (or as the guides call them, “gentle riders”) and instructed everyone to board the bus. The diverse and eager crowd consisted of everybody from tattoo-covered gothic couples wearing black capes and colorful wigs to curious preteens craving an adventure.

A blond-haired woman then boarded the bus wearing four-inch platform shoes with white spandex and introduced herself as Maja D’Aoust, a librarian, lecturer and teacher of Manly P. Hall’s Philosophical Research Society — and the tour guide for the day.

D’Aoust was born and raised on a small island off the coast of Washington called Vashon, which has a large community of artists interested in counter culture and alternative religions.

Her interest in spirituality began after she read religious books on theory and art from around the world given to her by her mother, which lead her to pursue degrees in biochemistry, oriental medicine and transformational psychology with a focus on shamanism.

“I was pretty much surrounded by images of Tibetan Buddhism, Vedic Myths, Christian renaissance art, pagan and Greek myths and many other forms of the material through the form of art and symbol,” she said in a later interview.

D’Aoust first became involved with the Esotouric company two years ago and has previously hosted two other tours.

She is among many tour guides selected by Esotouric founders Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, including acclaimed novelists, critics and a creepy, grease-painted clown named Crimebo.

As the bus headed north toward its first destination, D’Aoust explained the influence of magic in spiritual history — how hope is the basis of consciousness in the material world and how our ability to be tricked by simple magical illusions is representative of the entire universe as a deception.

Many of these theories were supported by controversial occultist, Aleister Crowley, who wrote The Book of the Law — which would later become the basis for the organization Ordo Templi Orietis, and, coincidentally, the first stop on the tour.

Located in the basement of a dry cleaning service in La Crescenta, the OTO Star Sapphire Lodge was composed of two rooms — a library of magical writings and a more secluded area of velvet curtains, checkerboard floors and drippy candles lit during a procession in front of the inquisitive gentle riders.

The members are mostly men, but the organization is led by a woman named Sorar Sophia, who demonstrated a ritual known as a “banishing.”

The ceremony began with her facing the sun and folding her fingers in the shape of a triangle before shouting Greek adorations to OTO aspirants.

Once completed, all members of the OTO chanted, “Love is the law, love under will,” before retreating behind the curtains and guiding us to our seats in the back room for a reading from The Book of the Law.

Concerning the OTO’s rule that all members must be older than 18, Sophia stated they didn’t want any “problems with liability.” Perhaps this has something to do with the nine steps of initiation, which include at the very end a practice known as “sex magic,” which Crowley described as the release of sexual arousal or energy accompanied by a mental image of a desired result.

Crowley believed that sex was the supreme magical power and as a result, included it in the OTO’s inception and manifestation. Sophia said the initiation process of the OTO often takes years to complete and many of its members have not yet reached the ninth step of sex magic.

After the bus left the OTO and professional magician Jeff Parks performed for a half-hour inside a train station that inspired several Raymond Chandler novels, the adventure bus headed back to Downtown where Maja’s magical bus riders took a tour of the landmark 1927 Theosophy Hall before heading back home. The fancy architectural structure is home to three floors of study rooms, an intricate library and a large auditorium where services are held — all of this only a few blocks from the USC campus on 33rd Street and Grand Avenue.

D’Aoust compared Los Angeles as a spiritual territory with other US cities, saying that magic can be found everywhere in Hollywood — even in its name.

“In olden times magic wands were made from Holly wood [from the Holly tree] and it’s no coincidence that Hollywood waves a spell of illusion over the rest of the world,” she said.

Thanks to D’Aoust and Esotouric, the complexities of this magic can be fully explored and discussed with “gentle riders” looking for an adventure slightly off the beaten path.