Exploring Global Subcultures from New Orleans to Tokyo: On the Road with La Carmina
This is a traveler case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)
A law student turned global storyteller, La Carmina has put her love of seeing the world through a subculture lens into books, articles, and television. Her stories just might inspire you to see your travels a little differently.
I’m La Carmina, a Goth girl from Vancouver, Canada. I started my travel and fashion blog in 2007 while studying at Yale Law. I loved connecting with people online, and sharing my passion for subcultures and alternative beauty around the world.
Over time, my site grew from a hobby into full-time opportunities I never imagined: publishing books, writing for CNN Travel, and hosting TV shows on networks like Travel Channel, Discovery and National Geographic.
Recently, I’ve put my focus on travel-related projects. My film team and I visit about one destination each month, and tell stories that appeal to millennial travelers—such as Korean cat cafes, Budapest music festivals, Cape Town drag queens, and Israel indie designers.
I love shining a positive spotlight on subcultures, which are often misunderstood.
Where does your interest in subcultures stem from?
I’ve always felt a connection to subcultures (Goth, Punk, Jrock). They were a space for me to express myself and find like-minded friends. Often, these “tribes” are unfairly criticized by mainstream culture.
This motivated me to do personal, meaningful coverage of my experiences in underground lifestyles. By starting a positive conversation about misunderstood topics (like the body modification scene in Japan), I hope to encourage young people to travel meaningfully.
Can you tell us a little about what meaningful travel means to you?
A lot of people grow up thinking of travel as equivalent to “vacation” or “holiday,” meaning an opportunity to sit on a cruise or in an all inclusive resort, see landmarks, and shop. To me, this is only scratching the surface.
I was fortunate to have traveled widely from a young age, and I know how much of an impact these experiences can make on a young mind. I hope that I can show young travelers a different approach through my personal travel stories.
For example, many go to New Orleans for “spring break partying” and stick to Bourbon Street. In my NOLA posts, I delved into cemeteries on the outskirts of town, went to districts that were hit by Hurricane Katrina, climbed the Tree of Life, ate Creole and Cajun food, and talked about voodoo and vampire culture.
Hopefully these perspectives encourage young travelers to dig deeper, wherever they go, and truly experience the local culture.
What inspired you to travel?
I’ve been traveling since I was one year old. My parents grew up in Hong Kong, so we visited relatives and explored Asia almost every year while I was growing up. Those trips were where I became inspired by Harajuku style and Kpop culture, and I always naturally gravitated to travel and personal narratives.
Being in law school made me realize that it doesn’t make sense for anyone to force themselves in a certain direction. I learned important skills in law school, and it would have resulted in a solid career, but there was never a sense of “flow.” I didn’t feel engaged by the curriculum; my instinct was to do the bare minimum.
On the other hand, I can spend hours on travel writing, blogging, and arranging international TV shows. I’m entirely in the moment, and enjoying every aspect (including the challenges). Every time I go on the road, I’m continuing to do the things I love, and I have no intention of slowing down.
Does your work then influence how you pay for your travels?
All of my traveling since 2007 has been work-related – from buying a moose head on Oddities to taking Andrew Zimmern to Tokyo theme restaurants. I partner with companies and only take on collaborations that fit with my passions.
What is a recent encounter fresh in your mind?
I love watching Bizarre Foods on Travel Channel, and it was a dream come true when Andrew Zimmern asked me to be on the show. He wanted me to be his on-camera guide for an episode in Japan!
It was one of my first travel TV experiences, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially with such a big star involved.
However, the moment I stepped out the taxi in Shibuya and hugged Andrew, I knew it was going to be a breeze. He has a knack for making people feel comfortable, and I just had to be myself while the cameras followed us around.
After shooting footage of us walking together through the famous Shibuya crossing, we really got rolling and went to, Alcatraz ER: a monster-jail haunted theme restaurant. My Japanese Goth friends met us there, and a waitress – dressed like a hot nurse – handcuffed Andrew.
We all crammed into a jail cell (the poor sound man had to contort his body to fit in), and ordered a wild selection of food including test-tube cocktails with floating eyeballs, and a bed pan of beer. Then we did “takoyaki roulette”: everyone had to eat an octopus ball, and one of them was filled with wasabi!
The entire experience opened my eyes to the possibilities of travel storytelling, and led to the various travel TV hosting and projects I do today.
That’s awesome. Tell us about some other subcultures you’ve encountered.
When I went to Vienna, I attended a huge Gothic Lolita meetup. This subculture fashion/lifestyle originated in Japan in the late 1980s, and is inspired by the aesthetics of the Rococo Era — think pastel colors and royal Versailles gowns.
Today, Gothic Lolita fashion is worldwide, and has become popular with young people who have never even been to Japan. It was fascinating to see this subculture come full circle and bloom in Vienna, the home of Marie Antoinette.
I was also recently in Tel Aviv, where I was surprised to discover a vivacious LGBT scene. I partied til dawn at the gay bar Evita, and watched drag queens strut the stage. What a contrast to spending the day at the Wailing Wall and Stations of the Cross!
I love getting to know edgy, creative artists who aren’t afraid to express who they are, in places where not everyone may accept them.
What has surprised when on the road?
Travel has made me realize that I spend a lot of my daily life mindlessly going through mental patterns and clinging to routines. For example, at home I try to ‘eat clean’ in daily life, and feel like I’m slacking if I don’t do my bodyweight and interval training workouts at least every few days.
On the road, it’s much harder to maintain these routines – and the accompanying illusion of stability – with all the changing time zones and conditions. Everything is constantly in flux, and unexpected setbacks are the norm, from lost baggage to cancelled reservations. Instead of getting anxious, I’ve been learning to use these moments to let go.
Every time, I realize I don’t fall apart. In fact, I often feel more inspired and happy while traveling, despite (or maybe because of) all these changes.
The great debate: aisle or window?
Best travel tips. Go:
Have all the information beforehand.
I work as a TV production arranger, or “fixer” as we’re often called, and this is vital. Before a trip, I create a detailed schedule with addresses, phone numbers, directions, map screenshots and more. Mobile phones and Internet are unreliable, so I recommend having a physical copy of these materials with you at all times.
You can train yourself to fall asleep in uncomfortable places.
I cover my face with a dark towel or t-shirt, which blocks out all the light and provides a barrier against any dry air. Then I count backwards from a high number (such as 666) while breathing deeply.
This counting keeps your mind focused on a boring task and encourages sleep. In addition, while my eyes are shut, I move my eyes from side to side with each count, to mimic REM patterns. (If there are any “sleep hackers” out there, I’d love to hear your tips too!)
Where are you headed next?
I just got back from Hong Kong, where I helped launch the new Sav Hotel in Kowloon, with Chinese New Year celebrations.
Next, I’m excited to partner with Manchester’s marketing bureau — I’ll be showcasing the indie, artsy side of the city that gave birth to Joy Division and New Order. I’m also stopping over in Iceland (a country I’ve been itching to see), and Whitby (for the bi-annual Gothic festival). Tips for these places welcome!
Follow La Carmina’s travels on her site, or via Twitter @lacarmina.