After the tsunami hit Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India in December 2004, I was glued to CNN for days, I bought Time and Newsweek, I constantly checked for updates online, wishing desperately that I could do something to help.
Three months later, I was sent to Thailand on assignment to cover the recovery efforts in the Andaman area. The trip would take us to Phuket and Krabi, two places that were hit by the tsunami.
While I was looking forward to working on the stories, I was also worried about one thing: ghosts.
There were plenty of post-tsunami ghost stories circulating on the internet at that time. It didn’t help that a friend sent me this message: “My friends just came from Phuket and puro ghost stories daw dun.”
Still, I went, emboldened by prayers and the promise of another journalist that she would bunk with me at each stop, even when we had been booked in separate rooms.
As I was getting off the plane in Krabi, I got this message from a journalist in Manila: “Ingat sa mga picture ninyo. May story dito now, nagkodakan, may lumabas na patay sa picture. Yung kakalibing pa lang nila.”
It took me three days to break down our tour guide’s resolve not to talk about ghosts. She told us about a tuktuk driver who picked up seven foreigners from Karon Beach. They wanted to move to Patong Beach.
While he was driving them, a couple hailed the tuktuk. He stopped and told them he’d come back for them because he needed to drop the seven off first.
The couple just looked at him, confused. When the driver finally arrived at Patong Beach, his tuktuk was empty. The seven foreigners had vanished.
A journalist from another paper had been sleeping in his hotel room when a bag that had been sitting in the middle of his dresser landed on the floor with a loud thud. He woke up. There was no wind, no logical reason for the bag to fall off on its own.
“Does that qualify as a ghost story?” he asked me the next morning.
For four days and three nights, I worried that the lost soul of a tsunami victim would be standing at the foot of the bed when I opened my eyes. I kept peeking at the bathroom mirror nervously for things that were not supposed to be there.
But my only encounters with ghosts during the trip were just these—stories. And they were soon eclipsed by the ones I felt compelled to tell: about the lingering evidence of devastation, the effort to move on, the resilience of the Thais and the compassion of the many, many people who did what they could to offer aid.
I ended one of my articles with this line: “The only ghosts I found were the ones in my head.”
But I was wrong.
The day after we put the paper containing my Andaman stories to bed, right before the newspaper copies were to be delivered to homes, offices and newsstands all over the country, I was sitting in a cinema with friends, waiting for a movie to start. Bored, I started scrolling through the image gallery in my phone, an old Nokia.
I paused at a photo from our night in Krabi, a selfie I had taken before sleeping, my head resting on a pillow. I noticed that my hair looked extra-messy so I zoomed in for a closer look.
I was not prepared for what I saw. There was a face, complete with a nose and a mouth, on one of the pink streaks in my hair. I tried to explain it away. It must be a camera defect. Or the lighting. Maybe that was my face too. But in the photo, my mouth was closed. The other figure’s mouth was open. Its teeth were bared.
Not believing what was in front of me, I nudged the person to my left and showed him my phone.
“Oh my god,” he said.
“Oh my god,” I agreed.
We huddled over my phone in disbelief. Then we passed it on to another friend who then passed it on to another friend and still another friend. It wasn’t just my imagination. We all saw the exact same thing.
I’ve always been skeptical when people claim that they captured spirits in photos. But the ghost in my hair changed my mind.