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.
Szelag says she will always have a warm spot for the people of the Cook
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.
on that episode later.
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.
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.
2019. Living far away in Northern Europe, Szelag was in search of adventure and
wanted to see the world.
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
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.
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
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.
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
very long list of suggestions sent by Carruthers was an idea that caught her
eye: volunteering at the local SPCA.
the free time in the world, she committed with zeal to managing the local
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
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.
deepest emotional need is the need to feel loved, and animals have the same
feeling,” she says.
say I’m going to do something, I do it.”
resident and fiery Cook Islands News columnist Ruta Tangiiau Mavé speaks highly
of Szelag. “She’s very good at upselling,” says Mavé.
July, and Mavé was in search of a male puppy for her son.
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.
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.
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.
Mavé wasn’t in the market for an older dog. They were only set on a male pup.
of a sudden, several puppies became available and they were ready to adopt.
chose a chilled-out male, whom they named Nelo. But after bringing the pup home
they found out she was actually a female.
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.
introduce him to this young girl, and now the old boy has this new lease on
life with this young woman. Typical,” Mavé says.
adopting episode set off a friendship that has endured during Szelag’s time in
a very engaging personality so it wasn’t very hard to befriend her,” Mavé says.
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.”
going-away party this week, Mavé was joined by dozens of people who had come to
say goodbye to Szelag.
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.
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.
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
islands made me stronger. Of course I had many doubts and wanted to give up,
but the dogs kept me moving forward.”
were my greatest adventure and I’m going to miss them so incredibly much. I
love them to bits.”
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.
swapping my bikini for a puffer jacket and snow shoes,” she says.
a few days after arriving back home, she’ll be back on the job as a primary
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.
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.
that incident, she knew the time had come to start thinking about returning
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.”
that experience, Szelag is leaving with fond memories of an inadvertent
adventure that could make the script for a big-screen production.
it’s one that only free-spirited individuals like her will experience.
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
will always be part of my memory, and I’m thankful for everything about this
island, the culture, and the unique people.
later South Pacific. With all my heart, soul, and mind, meitaki maata.”