Globetrotter says ‘ka kite’ to Cooks and its infamous canines

Saturday 23 January 2021 | Written by Emmanuel Samoglou | Published in Features, Weekend

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Globetrotter says ‘ka kite’ to Cooks and its infamous canines
Swedish/Polish national Karolina Szelag is saying goodbye to the Cook Islands, her unexpected home for the past 10 months. PHOTO: CHARLOTTE PIHO. 21012203

After an extended stay in the Cook Islands, tourist-turned-volunteer Karolina Szelag is saying goodbye today to a country that gave her so much more than she ever expected.

Karolina Szelag says she will always have a warm spot for the people of the Cook Islands.

But ultimately it was Rarotonga’s infamous dogs that have defined her time here. They gave her a reason to stay and to give back to the community. They even saved her from imminent danger.

But more on that episode later.

Szelag, 40, arrived in the Cook Islands in late March last year - the fourth country on an itinerary that was to send her on a 15-month voyage around the world.

Those plans were disrupted by the coronavirus, but as with a handful of other travellers, she was happy to be marooned in the Cook Islands while much of the world was grappling with the horrors of Covid-19.

It was 2019. Living far away in Northern Europe, Szelag was in search of adventure and wanted to see the world.

While working as a primary school teacher in the Swedish city of Gothenburg, the dual Polish and Swedish national began working out a route for her trip of a lifetime.

The idea of visiting a tropical island had particular allure and she had her eyes on the Caribbean. But just then a story about off-the-beaten track destinations caught her attention, particularly a write-up about the Cook Islands which are roughly 16,000 kilometres away from Sweden.

She was sold.

Szelag arrived in Rarotonga on March 17, 2020 after having visited Indonesia and New Zealand. The plan was to stay 12 days, but shortly after arriving, borders were shut.

“It wasn’t in the plan to stay in Raro for more than 12 days, and I was wondering about what I will do here,” she says.

While in New Zealand, Szelag had connected via email with Rarotonga resident Pasha Carruthers, whom she’d written to and asked what she should do during her visit.

On a very long list of suggestions sent by Carruthers was an idea that caught her eye: volunteering at the local SPCA.

With all the free time in the world, she committed with zeal to managing the local animal shelter.

And she quickly became well known on the rock, driving the SPCA’s manual transmission van around the island and assisting shoppers at the SPCA op-shop at Punanga Nui Market.

Of all the tasks in her volunteering role, it would be finding homes for the shelter’s dogs that she took the most seriously and would find most rewarding.

“Our deepest emotional need is the need to feel loved, and animals have the same feeling,” she says.

“If I say I’m going to do something, I do it.”

Rarotonga resident and fiery Cook Islands News columnist Ruta Tangiiau Mavé speaks highly of Szelag. “She’s very good at upselling,” says Mavé.

It was July, and Mavé was in search of a male puppy for her son.

After contacting the SPCA, she got in touch with Szelag, who had just inherited a litter of puppies that she was looking to find homes for.

Mavé’s son had his sights set on a black and tan male puppy, but by the time they were ready to adopt, all were spoken for.

Szelag suggested taking the mumma dog, who was available and “basically a puppy herself”, but the family already had an aging male dog named Tipu, who was in his later years of life.

Besides, Mavé wasn’t in the market for an older dog. They were only set on a male pup.

Then all of a sudden, several puppies became available and they were ready to adopt.

They chose a chilled-out male, whom they named Nelo. But after bringing the pup home they found out she was actually a female.

And after a little persuasion and a sales pitch from Szelag, they ended up taking the mumma dog as well, unexpectedly adding two new members to the family to join ol’ Tipu.

“I introduce him to this young girl, and now the old boy has this new lease on life with this young woman. Typical,” Mavé says.

The dog adopting episode set off a friendship that has endured during Szelag’s time in Rarotonga.

“She has a very engaging personality so it wasn’t very hard to befriend her,” Mavé says.

“There were a lot of people that were stuck here and living off the government subsidy, but she was giving back to the community,” she says. “What she has done in her time here has really helped locally. We are looking after her, but she has given back.”

At a going-away party this week, Mavé was joined by dozens of people who had come to say goodbye to Szelag.

“It’s always sad to see good people leave, but it’s one of those things that’s ‘better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’,” she says.

In the end Szelag ended up finding homes for 128 dogs, including the two adopted by Mavé’s family. It was a labour of love and she is more than happy to have given her time to the SPCA.

“For me it’s not important how many dogs I re-homed,” Szelag says. “It was about finding a perfect match and finding people that want to give a dog love and a quality home.”

“These islands made me stronger. Of course I had many doubts and wanted to give up, but the dogs kept me moving forward.”

“They were my greatest adventure and I’m going to miss them so incredibly much. I love them to bits.”

Szelag has a ticket for Saturday’s Air New Zealand flight to Auckland. She will be spending a few days in Aotearoa before making the long voyage back to Sweden, which is currently in the midst of winter.

“I’m now swapping my bikini for a puffer jacket and snow shoes,” she says.

And only a few days after arriving back home, she’ll be back on the job as a primary school teacher.

For those enjoying the sun and sand, it might seem like a sombre chapter in Szelag’s travel adventure, but she talks about the future with conviction and without a hint of remorse.

Part of the reason for that is she had a frightful episode in November when her house was broken into in the early hours of the morning. Of course, it was a dog that woke her up so she could escape to safety, but thieves ran away with her mobile phone and bank cards.

After that incident, she knew the time had come to start thinking about returning home.

“Life is about moving forward, and that’s what happened,” she says. “That was the sign, and I had decided to buy a ticket and head back to my country.”

Despite that experience, Szelag is leaving with fond memories of an inadvertent adventure that could make the script for a big-screen production.

Perhaps it’s one that only free-spirited individuals like her will experience.

“You know there are places you never want to leave? Raro is one of them,” she says. “I only should have stayed 12 days but God had other plans and it has been 10 months.”

“Rarotonga will always be part of my memory, and I’m thankful for everything about this island, the culture, and the unique people.

“See you later South Pacific. With all my heart, soul, and mind, meitaki maata.”