This week on The Traveler Series meet Carmen of La Carmina–-she is a Canadian blogger, author and TV host who swapped law school for a colorful career writing about alternative travel, fashion and pop culture. Known for her Harajuku-style, Carmen (who goes by La Carmina) is a popular blogger who has been writing full-time, hosting travel TV shows around the world and covering topics that range from Hello Kitty cafes to heavy metal festivals. Having been featured on TLC Asia, National Geographic and the Discovery Science Channel, La Carmina also has her own travel video series that is filmed in countries such as Hungary, Mexico and Jordan and is aired on Business Insider and the Huffington Post. Here I interview La Carmina on her best travel advice, what inspired her website and what’s next for 2014.
What inspires you to travel?
I have incurable wanderlust: The more I travel, the more I am excited to keep exploring new places. One might pick up impressions of countries from books or TV, but being there in the flesh is a completely different experience. I just came back from South Africa, and soaked in so much about the history, people, culture just by being there and hanging out with the locals. I realize I can’t get these experiences unless I travel — and so, I keep packing my bags. I’m also inspired by my readers on my La Carmina site, who tell me they love following my adventures around the world. If my passion motivates them to travel, or opens their eyes to subcultures, then I feel I’m making a difference.
For those who don’t yet know you, can you explain your travel style?
Since my work is highly visual with high-quality photo and videos, I usually travel with a minimum of two professional filmmakers and photographers. They’re also my close friends, so we always have a fun time together on the road. Other times, if I’m working with TV shows, I’ll be with a crew that can be as large as 9 people total. My travel coverage is very different from that of most travel bloggers; it is highly personal and focuses on bizarre, alternative, underground culture. Such as drag queen shows in Tel Aviv, dog petting cafes in Seoul, horror theme bars in Tokyo, and fetish clubs in Berlin! There’s an emphasis on hip, upcoming, design-oriented stories, so we tend to stay in boutique hotels in cities.
How do you afford your travels?
I’ve been working in the travel industry for years now (as an author, journalist, blogger and TV host) so basically all of my travels are connected to work projects in some organic way. I’ll never partner with a brand unless it fits with who I am and the collaboration allows me to express myself freely. For example, I just came back from a big Asia project where I scouted out quirky, offbeat, little-known spots in multiple cities. Last year, I partnered with Eurail and went to five countries in Eastern Europe, covering topics like trippy music festivals.
Where has been your favorite destination and why?
It’s impossible to name one destination but I’ll never forget the paradise-on-Earth that is the Maldives. I’ve been to many beach spots but there is something other worldly about the untouched nature there. You can see my posts about my five-star island lifestyle in the Maldives here.
If you had to settle down in one location forever, where would you choose and why?
I can’t imagine staying put for longer than 1-2 months but between my travels, I am in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada. My family is here and my earless Scottish Fold cat, who looks like a fuzzy little bear — reason enough!
What’s the funniest or weirdest cultural idiosyncrasy you’ve either witnessed or experienced?
It’s always fun to land in Hong Kong airport and immediately experience the city’s hard-core efficiency. The customs staff pushes you into lines, snaps at you if you aren’t swift enough or forget to fill out a form. Once, my Swedish friend got reprimanded in Cantonese for not looking like his passport photo. It’s aggressive, fast, and I love it.
What keepsake do you have to get at all your destinations? (Whether it’s something free like ticket stubs or brochures, or something you have to buy)
My filmmaker Melissa (who often travels with me) always picks up a magnet at each destination. I don’t usually pick up souvenirs, but I like to hold onto unique pamphlets, such as the Lion Park in South Africa or the Pokemon store in Osaka. And I’m always on the look-out for anything with Scottish Folds cats on it. I picked up a Scottish Fold ring in Bangkok, a notebook and toy in Hong Kong, and cat cafe brochures featuring folds in Tokyo.
How about the one thing you cannot travel without?
My iPhone. These days, social media is so important and many of my work contracts require that I upload social media posts regularly during trips. (I’m @lacarmina on all social networks, including Instagram and Twitter). iPhones also make it easy to check emails and take candid photos on the go.
Have you ever traveled solo? If yes, what was the experience like?
Yes, but these days I travel with filmographers (or at least meet up with them locally) in order to produce the photo, video and TV content that I do. I have no qualms about traveling by myself, however. I don’t feel intimidated about being in new places alone, even if I don’t know the local language.
What are your go-to travel apps?
I try to keep my apps to the minimum. I use social media apps like Instagram and Twitter (@lacarmina), Google Maps, and TripIt to keep track of my travel documents.
What is the best piece of travel advice you’ve picked up over the years?
It’s simple: ditch the touristy-tours and spend meaningful time with locals. I can’t understand why anyone would want to go on a bus tour that takes them to landmarks and souvenir shops. Research your niche, ask insiders for advice and make the effort to get out to places — even if you’re alone and don’t know anyone there. In a place like London, I’d be at punk clubs and cyber shops, not up on the Eye.
Why did you begin your website? How did you come up with your website name?
Growing up, I loved visiting Asia with my family and wearing Jpop fashion but I never imagined it was possible to have a travel career like mine. I went to Columbia University and then Yale Law School – but my heart wasn’t into law. I found it so dry compared to the colorful, experimental scene in Harajuku. I needed a creative escape, so I started my blog in 2007. The name “La Carmina” is a flamboyant play on my real name, Carmen. Every day, I posted about the hidden spots I loved in Japan – such as the Vampire Cafe where the waiters dressed like Dracula, or pastel Goth boutiques where the fashion is inspired by My Little Pony. All the places that mainstream travel guides and tours would never show you. I did this all out of love – I enjoyed connecting with people online over these shared interests and never thought the site would lead anywhere. But then some of my posts about theme restaurants and cute food became popular and long story short, it landed me two book deals, which led to TV jobs and increasingly larger collaborations. Now, I do this full time.
What is your best piece of advice to budding travel writers looking to start a blog or website?
Break away from the pack: have your own point of view and don’t be afraid to do articles that are bold and experimental. I don’t join travel blog collectives or group press trips and avoid doing typical list posts. My content is not for everyone, but those who “get” it are insanely passionate about what I do. I also suggest putting effort into photo quality and SEO and doing longer posts every 3-7 days instead of putting up a “postcard from X” just for the sake of uploading something.
What’s next for you in 2014? (Trips planned, etc.)
I just came back from Cape Town, Taipei, Hong Kong, Seoul, and Tokyo — so for now, I’m busy catching up on everything. Too many crazy stories to share! Looking ahead, I have some dream destinations in the works and am currently involved in a big TV project… but I can’t reveal the details quite yet. You can keep track of my whereabouts around the world and find out more about these gigs soon on my site. I look forward to connecting with you!
Follow La Carmina and her adventures here