|Late one night during the July monsoon, Boosaba Nualhing (Boo-sah-bah means flower blossom) was born at home in a small farming village in northern Thailand. She was her parents' second child; her sister, Sanga, was eight years older, and her brother, Sundit, was born four years after Boosaba. Their father was the highly respected village headman, while their mother, no less admired, looked after the children, the house, and the farm.
Their ancient village of Pah Leurat was located on the north bank of the mighty Nan River, in a lush valley flanked by teak-forested hills and about a day's journey upstream from the provincial capital of Uttaradit. This idyllic community was home to a few hundred families who used water buffalo to farm rice, just as their ancestors had done in that same place for hundreds of years. They grew coconuts, papayas and bananas in their yards, built their homes of hand-sawn teak with grass-thatched roofs, and cooked their meals on fires of home-made charcoal. Depending on the season, the dirt roads were either slick mud or fine dust, and there was no running water, gas or electricity.
Village life centered around the rice fields, the wat (Buddhist community temple), and the local public school. These self-sufficient, fun-loving families supported one another in every activity from birth to death, planting to harvest, and discipline to celebration. Although she never owned a single doll, Boosaba remembers her childhood as a time of constant warmth and companionship during which she learned to swim, paddle a canoe, and look after gardens, chickens, puppies and pigs. She even practiced some cooking in the years before she started school.
As a young child Boosaba enjoyed swimming in the river and playing store with her friends. She was also a good soccer player and a fast runner, but as she grew older she found less time for games and began to cultivate that remarkable Thai gift for finding pleasure in doing, and for making chores fun through camaraderie. Harvesting rice, for example, involves heavy work in the hot sun against an immutable deadline, yet Boosaba fondly recalls threshing rice with her family and neighbors, singing around the campfire, and sleeping in the straw as some of her happiest annual adventures.
When she was six years old, Boosaba entered first grade dressed in a blue skirt, white blouse, and black shoes. Each day began with the Thai national anthem, followed by Buddhist prayers. Her curriculum included courses in Thai language, mathematics, social sciences, agriculture, hygiene, home economics, Buddhism, athletics and Scouting. Boosaba began studying English in the fifth grade.
During her first grade year, Boosaba's parents divorced and her life was dramatically changed. Her father dismantled their handsome two-story house and rebuilt it nearly a mile away, leaving only a small shack for Boosaba, her mother, sister and brother. Although the children loved their father and visited him often, they lived with their mother and their life was far, far more difficult than before.
Boosaba worked hard to help her mother, and her mother worked even harder to see her children through school. Following her sister's example as a bright and dedicated student, Boosaba was one of the few in her class to continue her education past the sixth grade. The thirty-mile commute to junior and senior high schools required both financial sacrifice and twelve-hour days away from home, followed by farm chores, housework and homework.
Cooking was a task which Boosaba's father enjoyed far more than her mother, so when he left home Boosaba -- then only six years old -- began to share the responsibility of cooking for the family. She learned by watching and helping her father, her sister and her neighbors, and by asking questions and experimenting. Boosaba still loves to cook, and her multi-course Thai meals are always one of the most memorable features of the Inside Thailand experience.
After finishing high school, Boosaba travelled 150 miles north to Chiangmai to stay with her sister who was employed as a nurse at the McKean Leprosy Hospital. Boosaba enrolled in a five-year accounting program and studied hard for three years, until her sister suddenly died of Japanese encephalitis.
Through this devestating tragedy Boosaba became her mother's eldest child, and bravely shouldered that new responsibility. For the next ten years she worked as a schoolteacher by day and an accountant by night, and saved enough money to build her mother a beautiful new house. She also continued her own education on weekends, and when she was thirty received a BA in Psychology and Guidance.
Just after her graduation, Boosaba met and married Mac Bakewell. Their daughter, Benyapa, was born in Chiangmai, and the young family spent Benyapa's first two years in Pah Leurat. They then moved to Santa Barbara, and since 1995 have operated Inside Thailand -- a unique summer program which invites small groups of American teens to teach English to their Thai peers in Pah Leurat, while immersed in traditional Thai culture and enchanted by Boosaba's cooking.