Every year, roughly 80,000 travelers from at least ninety countries pass through the doors of HI New York City, the largest hostel in the Americas. Each week, Narratively’s Daniel Krieger will spend a few hours in the landmarked building on New York’s Upper West Side, listening to their stories for our Hostel People series.
Ronald Odero, 33, stationed with the British Army in Alberta, Canada; originally from Kisumu, Kenya
How long is your trip? I’m in New York for just two days. It’s my first time here. I had a walk around Manhattan and went to Wall Street, where I saw the charging bull. I also saw Lady Liberty.
Have you had any difficulties here? Some people have a hard time understanding my accent, and I also have a hard time with the American accent, especially – I don’t mean to profile – black Americans. That’s the one I find hardest, which is ironic considering I’m black. But I shrug it off. It’s part of traveling.
How many languages do you speak? Eleven. I grew up around different tribes. Six languages that I speak are local. It just came naturally by being around them. I also speak French, Swahili, and a bit of Arabic.
So how did a Kenyan wind up in the British Army? The British Army allows members of the Commonwealth, former colonies, to join. Eventually I can get British citizenship. My home now is London.
How did you get into traveling? In Africa, before moving to the U.K., I was a safari tour guide for eight years. I met all kinds of people. It wasn’t just a job. It was my life. I loved showing tourists around and seeing their reactions. They would be so fascinated by a lion or an elephant. But that’s not surprising for me because that’s what I grew up with.
Do you see this scar on my forehead? That’s from a leopard. There was this baby elephant that was trapped by poachers at a national game park. We were called in to rescue it. The snare had dug deep into the tissue on its front leg. We had to follow it and tranquilize it, and we had to dart its mother as well because she wouldn’t let us go near her baby. It was my job to cut off the snare, which was like barbed wire that had cut into its leg. The mother woke up faster than we thought she would. I was still applying antiseptic to the baby elephant when I saw a big shadow coming over me from behind, and I heard her big ears flapping as she was waking up. My instinct was to run. The safest thing to do was to climb a tree. But there was a leopard having a nap on a branch. That’s where they hide when they sleep. I scared it, and it gave me a scratch. I fell off, and luckily the elephant had not been pursuing me. I needed six stitches. It was comical, really. Kenya is half humans, half animals, and animals have the right of way. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. They don’t just attack for no reason.
Because of all the terror alerts, Kenya has less tourism now. The safari farm where I worked wasn’t doing well and was bought by a rival safari farm, and then they made us redundant. If that had not happened, I would still be there.
What was the highlight of your trip? The 9/11 Memorial. It was such a contrast – there I was, walking through New York City, which was just like you see in the movies with all the busy people hurrying around. But once you step into the 9/11 Memorial, it’s such a different feel. It takes you away from the hustle and bustle of city life. You’re in a serene environment where you can collect your thoughts. I looked up and remembered the very moment when I was a teenager in Kenya watching the news live on the day of the attack.
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Come back to Narratively next Wednesday for more Hostel People.
This interview has been edited and condensed. HI NYC management has granted permission for this project, but plays no role in shaping the stories and has no affiliation with Narratively.