Over breakfast in Barcelona, Steve Booker expected local influencer Josef Ajram to help him devise a plan for his short stay in the Catalonian city. It didn’t take long – when the British traveler asked about the tattoos covering most of Josef’s forearms, Booker almost immediately set in motion the adventure that will stick with him the longest.
“I said, half jokingly, ‘Oh, so are we getting tattoos today, then?’” Booker recalls over Skype shortly after finishing his cashless pole-to-pole journey. He was only half serious, but Josef loved the idea. He offered to hook Booker up with his tattoo guy. About an hour later Booker was sitting in the chair at LTW Tattoo, prepared to let Javier Rodriguez stamp a permanent memory on his right forearm.
“He ended up being an amazing guy, super talented guy,” Booker says. “I kind of went in with my sketch and he redid it and I was really happy with it, and he made me feel really comfortable.” Booker asked for an image representing the photographer’s line of sight, primarily because photography has become such an integral part of his career and daily life.
When he asked if they accepted PayPal, Rodriguez refused to let him pay. As a friend of Josef’s, Rodriguez said, Booker was immediately a friend of LTW Tattoo’s, a notion that really reminded Booker of the value of making an effort to really get to know the local communities as he travels. Anytime he is preparing for a trip, he asks his social media followers to suggest local spots.
“To find the real gems I think you need people who are locals, who can show you around or recommend places,” he says. Throughout the pole-to-pole trip, he’s asked local influencers to guide him through their cities, and, he says, “It was great to see their favorite spots of their cities.”
In Barcelona, that meant meeting Ajram’s tattoo guys. Booker’s now inked for life, but there was little time to stop and enjoy the moment. As quickly as he arrived, he and his crew were off to their farthest destination yet: Cape Town, South Africa. Twelve hours of flying later, they arrived at an Airbnb with sweeping views of Lion’s Head and Table Mountain. It would have been easy to just lounge and catch up on sleep, but they wanted to make the most of this short stop.
“We went straight to a small little airfield in the middle of nowhere and did a gyrocopter flight, which was amazing,” says Booker, explaining that gyrocopters are different from other aircraft in that passengers are almost entirely exposed to the elements.
“A gyrocopter is almost like a little motorbike, and then it’s got a helicopter propeller on the top, and then almost the same on the back, but a smaller version,” he says, adding that he wasn’t scared. Flying over farmlands and plains, they saw some of the country’s famous wildlife, then captured aerial shots of Signal Hill and Lion’s Head. It was another whirlwind, followed by an early-morning flight to their final stop. More than 36 hours and a layover in Buenos Aires later, they’d made it to the southern city of Ushuaia, Argentina.
Unlike Svalbard’s small village of 2,000, where Booker and his crew started their journey, this pole city featured a population of more than 70,000. It differed in many other ways as well, most noticeably the architecture. They hung their heads out of the windows in awe as they cruised around in taxis, noticing that Argentina’s lack of zoning laws allows completely different structures and homes to be built side by side. Booker found himself transfixed, comparing it to the strict style of London.
The wildlife was also quite memorable, as Booker was soon hanging out with a colony of penguins on the South Pole. As the journey wrapped up, he had only one regret: he really would have loved to have seen a polar bear in Svalbard. But all in all, it was an incredible two weeks.
“I loved the challenge of not using cash,” he says. It made him think about how he planned his days, but also opened up opportunities he might not have otherwise considered. “It was amazing to see how it benefits so many people,” he adds, thinking back to many of the local guides that he met along the way, like the man who helped him tour the skyscraper in Moscow.
“You have the locations that are so enjoyable, but it’s really the people that make the trip so amazing,” he concludes. “You can see that they’re passionate about what they’re telling you and what you’re doing. The people make the trip.”