This interview with La Carmina is part of a series of my conversations with experts and locals to enhance the experience of travelling
As a Goth Girl who travels, there are a few things I’m usually looking to visit when I land in a new place: cemeteries, alternative clothing stores and art spaces, creepy historical or cultural artifacts. So I get really excited when I see those kinds of things covered in travel media. And inevitably, when I find an article or a video about something really cool to add to my travel bucket list, it’s because of La Carmina.
La Carmina is a travel writer, TV host and author based in Vancouver. She has visited more than 70 countries working on TV shows like Bizarre Foods, No Reservations, Taboo, Oddities, and Better Late than Never, and you can read her journalism in an ever-expanding list of outlets including CNN, Fodor’s, Time Magazine, Business Insider, Yahoo, Sunday Times, Buzzfeed and more. She’s also currently co-host a web show for The Satanic Temple TV. Equally important for weirdos like me, she maintains an extensive personal blog at lacarmina.com with loads of information on her past adventures.
Much of what La Carmina covers is fashion, food, and subcultures that are offbeat or unusual. Right up my dark alley. I’ve always wanted to talk to her about how she does it, and why. On a recent trip to Vancouver I got my chance to meet up. She took me to one of her favourite Japanese restaurants, Minari in Yaletown, where I enjoyed fabulous vegetarian sushi and mocktails. She also agreed to answer my questions about Japan, Goth packing tips and how she sees the world and travel changing. The following interview with La Carmina was conducted over email.
An Interview with La Carmina about travel blogging, alternative culture, the ethics of flying, and what to expect from travel in a pandemic.
How and when did you discover Goth or Alternative subculture? Why did it resonate with you?
I first visited Tokyo as a child, on a family trip (we spent a great deal of time in Asia, as we had relatives in Hong Kong). I was mesmerized by the imaginative Gothic, punk and subculture fashion that I saw in Japan, particularly in Harajuku in the 1990s. These “style tribes” went all out with experimental dressing and makeup. I also had morbid and occult leanings for as long as I can remember. As a child, I was drawn to Halloween and horror movies. As a teen, I started wearing dark fashion, and exploring Goth concerts and nightlife. The subculture always felt like home to me.
“People tend to comment positively on my purple hair or pentagram dresses, which can lead to a conversation. Also, it helps break the ice when I’m reporting on underground culture.” — La Carmina
How does being “alternative” looking affect you when you travel?
I don’t really think about “looking alternative,” as this has been my personal style since my early teens. (I started dying my hair bright colors and wearing alt fashion back then.) When I’m traveling, people tend to comment positively on my purple hair or pentagram dresses, which can lead to a conversation. Also, it helps break the ice when I’m reporting on underground culture. The locals in the scene treat me as if I’m “one of them” rather than an outsider, which creates trust and lets me be part of their world.
What destinations have you been to with the most interesting subcultures?
I especially love traveling to destinations with vibrant subcultures, and I’m fortunate to have experienced many of them first-hand. In Myanmar, I volunteered with a group of hardcore punk rockers – they wear 1970s-style studded clothing and Mohawks, while running nonprofits to help locals in need. In Jaipur, India, I met hijra (the officially recognized third gender) in their communal homes. I experienced Day of the Dead and the “brushing of the bones” ceremony in Mexico, and made friends with Japanese Satanists in Osaka.
I’m not going to ask for your favourite place because I already know it’s Japan! What is it about Japan that thrills you so much? I’ve never been, but if I was going for the first time now, in 2022, what would you tell me to do?
Japan is unlike anywhere else on the planet, and I think there’s something here to captivate every type of traveler. Japanese architecture, food, fashion, art and nature are outstanding (often with a puzzling element that adds intrigue), and the culture is distinct from that of any other country. If you’re interested in Goth, I recommend flying to Tokyo for your first trip. I have guides to Tokyo’s alt nightlife, shopping and theme restaurants on my site.
Be sure to check out the lesser-known districts, such as Koenji and Nakano, for anime manga weirdness. I love the wild fetish night Department H, and my “evil queen” Yukiro runs regular “Witch Garden” Gothic parties, as well as drag shows with her Haus von Schwarz.
I also recommend getting a one or two-week Japan Rail Pass and heading to other destinations by train. Consider Kyoto (temples and art), Nara (feeding the friendly deer), Osaka (gritty subculture and tasty food), and perhaps the mountains for a Buddhist temple-stay or onsen (hot springs). I very much hope it’s possible to travel to Japan in 2022… but I’m staying realistic, and it might be quite some time before the country opens up to tourists again.
What’s your favourite “creepy” or dark destination or story you’ve covered?
I have fond memories of exploring cemeteries around the world. Some personal favorites: Romania’s Bellu Cemetery (there are decrepit above-ground stone coffins that look fit for a vampire), New Orleans’ Metairie (the Sphinx and pyramid mausoleum is out of a dream), London’s Highgate Cemetery (we buried Goth boots and ate wild strawberries), and Koyasan’s Okunoin (a Japanese Buddhist graveyard filled with bodhisattva statues). However, my definition of “creepy” is different from most, since I feel joyful and at home with skulls and death-objects. I’m a tad germophobic, so a cluttered and dusty environment is far more frightening to me.
Tell me your secret to packing cool clothes when you travel! Because I find it quite difficult to fit the right boots, the right coats, or hats in my luggage. And I don’t want to pack anything I’ll only wear once. But you seem to have nailed it.
I tentatively plan out my outfits in advance, as this is part of my work: I have to shoot clothes and accessories on my trips for fashion partnerships. However, it’s not as if I create an exact spreadsheet, and I’ll change it up depending on the activities and weather. I always bring checked luggage (I have a large sized Away suitcase), in addition to a backpack and hand-carried bag.
To save space, I’ll bring a limited number of shoes, focusing on those that are comfortable enough for walking around all day, but still look good in photos (such as black platform sneakers or chunky sandals). I also stick to one or two coats that can go with a variety of outfits. Finally, I look for ways to style the same garment in different ways, such as a plaid skirt with various types of tops, socks or tights.
“Of course, sunscreen is a must. I’m religious about applying four layers.”
What are your Travel Essentials that you think Goth travellers in particular should know or carry?
Witchy sun hats are both stylish and provide sun protection. I bring one or two in a zippered cloth bag, which I hand-carry onto the plane along with my backpack (this way, hats don’t take up room in my checked suitcase). I’m a fan of dramatic and oversize sunglasses, which also let you skip wearing eye makeup. If I’m heading to a cold destination, I pack black Uniqlo HeatTech thermal leggings and tops, as they’re great for layering and keeping you warm without adding bulk. Of course, sunscreen is a must. I’m religious about applying four layers: a zinc mineral base, tinted mineral over it, followed by dabs of BB cream and SPF powder.
I’d like to talk about diversity in the travel media. Most of what I see on social media or in travel marketing images are young, fit, straight white couples, although things seem to be changing. As an Asian-Canadian, what the challenges have you found in getting your work out there, and what could media outlets and brands do better to represent all kinds of travellers?
There have been positive changes in recent years. Many companies are now aiming for more diversity on press trips, or when commissioning freelancers. Although there’s always a long way to go, it’s good to see that the travel industry is increasingly open to alternative viewpoints. Tourism boards have supported my stories about topics like LGBTQ+ nightlife in Israel and Thailand, body modification artists in Arizona, and Goth festivals in Germany and Montreal. I think the key is to be professional and build up a strong body of work. This encourages travel partners to trust you, as they’ll see what you can deliver.
“These days, I prioritize seeing the people I care about.”
How did living through a global pandemic that kept us in our homes for so long, closed borders, etc. impact your philosophy of travel?
Before “The Collapse,” as I call it, I was keen to see new and far-off places like Easter Island, India, South Africa, Brazil and Egypt. Now, I have to consider safety elements like case counts and hospital capacities. And I make contingency plans in case I test positive or get stuck somewhere. Everyone’s travel plans have become tentative as well; things can change quickly and fall through, as we’re seeing right now with the new variant and increased restrictions.
These days, I prioritize seeing the people I care about, and words can’t describe how much I want to return to Japan. I’m constantly checking the news about Japan – it’s unbelievable that I haven’t been able to enter for two years (and possibly longer, the way things are going).
I’d like to open a space to talk the ethics of travelling. Questions that I grapple with. For example, in Italy last summer we visited the Vatican, right when Canada was reckoning with the confirmation that the Catholic church has murdered thousands of indigenous children. It didn’t feel good to pay money to see the Vatican museum, but seeing the power and money in that building put a lot in context. I have reservations about going somewhere like Russia, where LGBTQ rights are frequently violated. But I’m not sure anywhere has a perfect human rights track record. Are there places you won’t go? On the flip side, how do you like to “give back” to the places you visit?
You’re right that every country has a dark history and present, including our own. I think there are many ethical elements to consider when travelling, and the calculus is different for everyone. When I visited Egypt, for example, I gladly went in partnership with a UK-based tour company that focuses on younger travelers. We explored ancient Egyptian sites, and did immersive experiences such as a dinner in a Nubian village. In contrast, I wouldn’t feel comfortable being sponsored to write articles by a government that denies rights to women and LGBTQ+ citizens.
In general, I’m happy to go somewhere if it’s safe (I don’t visit conflict zones or high-risk areas), and if I can make a positive impact by sharing meaningful stories from these travels. For instance, when I went to Morocco, my team and I created a Business Insider video series highlighting women who run their own businesses. It feels great when readers tell me they visited an oddities shop or fringe art studio because of something I wrote.
“My goal is to take purposeful trips … as life is fleeting, and this type of travel may not even be possible a decade or so from now.”
Given the climate crisis, some people are choosing not to fly to reduce their carbon footprint. Like you, I’m continuing to fly, while practising other things – like not driving a car, having kids, or eating meat – that I feel are good choices for me and the planet. What do you say to anyone who is questioning flying for environmental reasons?
These days, I’m hyper-focused on climate change and the collapse of social order, and the inevitable difficulties and limitations we’ll face over the next decades. Although I think we should what we can to minimize our carbon footprints, the fact is that climate change is being driven by big businesses and governments. An individual’s actions will not make a dent in changing the trajectory towards a likely 3 degrees of warming by 2100. (Read this article in Nature for more.)
Knowing this, I’ll continue to make choices for the planet (like not wearing fast fashion or supporting factory farms), but I also plan to keep flying. My goal is to take purposeful trips to see the people that matter to me, as life is fleeting – and this type of travel may not even be possible a decade or so from now.
You’ve been on some trips after you got vaccinated and things started opening up. What should travellers know about what’s changed, and what to expect?
Travel rules about entry, masks, vaccine passports and tests are constantly changing (including right now, as a new variant looms) – so I urge travellers to keep on top of these requirements. It’s wise to book refundable flights and accommodations. Plan well ahead for entry forms and PCR tests, and keep in mind that you might test positive and have to quarantine for 10 days or more before going home. Finally, adjust your expectations about a trip… as the sad fact is that you might have to cancel or change it at the last moment.
In your fantasy, what does travel look like over the next 5 to 10 years?
I don’t think the world is heading towards any direction other than collapse. Rather than being falsely optimistic about a shiny “Jetsons” future, I’d rather be aware of the scientific facts, and be prepared and realistic about the hard times ahead of us. (Climate change, socio-economic unrest, and other difficulties await – it’s just a matter of how quickly things unravel, where, and in what manner. This is the challenge we all face, whether we acknowledge it or not.)
Unfortunately, I predict travel will be more difficult, expensive and restricted over the next 5-10 years. With this in mind, my ideal scenario is to be able to see the people I care about in places like Japan, and enjoy subculture music / culture / food / community experiences as much as I can. I’m more grateful than ever to be able to have “pockets of devilish fun” around the world, whenever I can.
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