A Serendipitous Trip to Bhutan

My heart was beating fast in excitement as we descended through the rainclouds in between the Himalayan peaks en route to the landing strip of Paro.  Just a few days back, my two sons and I were debating as to where we should spend our time together in India - Goa with its beaches and Portuguese cathedrals; Rajasthan with its magnificent forts, palaces and desert dunes; Ladakh with its high altitude Buddhist monasteries; Kerala with its rainforests, tea plantations and house boats in the backwaters; or Tamil Nadu with its ancient Hindu temples.   The only hitch being that I had visited these places already and was wanting a new place and a different exploration.   I then remembered that one of my friends in India whom I met in Pondicherry in the early 90’s is a friend to the Queen Mother of Bhutan.  I met Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi  Tshering Pem Wangchuk, in a conference in South India years back.   She had graciously invited me to visit her beautiful country.  I thought this was the right time to make use of her generous invitation.

Before our trip, we read articles on Bhutan, and watched documentaries to familiarize ourselves with the land and its people.  Some of my friends who had visited Bhutan had told me of its kind, gentle, polite and hospitable people living in one of the most picturesque places on earth.  It has been touted as the last Shangrila, regulating tourism to protect its people, culture, tradition and land from too abrupt outside influence. There is a ban on the use of plastic and smoking. Television and the internet were allowed only starting in 1999 making it the last country in the world to do so.  It has a stable ecosystem and a very robust environmental protection with 70 % of its land under forest cover.  Tourism is restricted with a fee of $250 a day per person (This fee includes a guide, land transport, meals and accommodation).   ‘Gross National Happiness’ (alongside Gross National Product) was coined by the fourth King, His Majesty, Jigme Singye Wangchuk and is considered an important component in the measuring the well-being and progress of the Bhutanese people.  Bhutan is the last standing Buddhist Kingdom on earth.

After being hosted at the VIP longue at the airport, our first stop was at the National Museum overlooking Paro showcasing different art works, artefacts and masks depicting spiritual teachings; vices and virtues; deities and spiritual teachers especially the patron of Bhutan, Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava.  We drove down to the Ringpung Dzong to look at its magnificent architecture and observe the Buddhist monks living within its compound.  Dzongs are heavily fortified, massively built and beautifully painted structures housing monasteries, temples and administrative offices.  We watched the locals gather dressed in all their finery enjoying family time during the annual mask dance festival in honor of Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava.

Our next stop was at a vegetarian restaurant to fuel us for the one hour drive through the winding road to Thimpu.  The scenery was a feast to the eyes with the magnificent Himalayas as the backdrop for farms, traditional village houses, Buddhist monasteries, and Bhutanese people garbed in their colourful traditional clothing. 

Day two started early with a trip to one of the largest Buddha statues in the world at 169 feet tall on top of a hill overlooking Thimpu valley.  We then went to a meditation and pranic healing center followed by one of the highlights of our trip - a private audience and lunch with the Queen Mother and her Princess daughter. The Queen Mother is passionate about their youth, empowering women, social and environmental welfare, health and spirituality. The Bhutanese cuisine is delicious and spicy with sumptuous use of chilies.

Day three was spent exploring Thimpu: a visit to a nunnery; circumnavigating a temple many times while quietly chanting the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra; watching traditional darts and archery competition out in the open field; hanging out at our guide’s home and meeting his family;  and an evening walk inside the Tashichho Dzong, one of the most impressive fortresses in Bhutan which houses the office of his Majesty, the King.

On day four, we headed to the direction of Punakha, the former capital of Bhutan.  We visited important monuments, temples and a nunnery.  We also spent time at a fertility temple, Chimi Lhaklang Monastery, visited by thousands of pilgrims, some of which are childless couples from all over Bhutan and from foreign countries who seek blessings for pregnancy.  The temple was established by Lama Drukpa Kuenly, the “Mad Saint” or the “Divine Madman” whose way of teaching Buddhism was eccentric and shocking with strong sexual overtones.  The surrounding village homes and stores had phallus wood carvings and paintings to drive away the evil eye.  We entered the temple where a monk was showing pictures of couples from foreign countries who could not get pregnant until after getting blessings at the temple.  We watched and listened to Buddhist monks chanting, playing drums and long trumpets.  On our way out, we spotted a woman saying her prayers, walking around the temple holding a big wooden phallus.  It was a shocking sight at first but to the Bhutanese, it is part of their faith and a sacred spiritual act.

The highlight of our day was a visit to the Punakha Dzong which is located in an island in between two rivers.  It is a beautiful and imposing structure which houses temples and a monastery inside.  We walked around the big compound, met young monks, walked quietly inside a temple with big Buddha statues while quietly listening to the powerful chanting of monks seated on the floor.  We also took time to observe how monks went on with their life outside the monastery after performing their rituals as they interacted with local shop owners and residents of the surrounding village.

Our fifth day was spent around Thimpu exploring another dzong, looking at local handicrafts, and watching an archery competition.  The Queen Mother generously invited us for an evening meal at her residence.  My children and I happily obliged.  She shared her thoughts and concerns about the youth and the women of her country and on some of the challenges they are facing.  Meanwhile, my children were very delighted playing basketball and football with Her Majesty’s grandchildren.

We started early on the sixth day for Taktshang Monastery.  The air was crisp, the early morning sun was lighting the Himalayan snow-capped peaks and the river below us reflecting the clear, blue sky as we drove back to Paro.  The hike from the mountain base to the monastery was a steep and arduous three-hour climb.  My children were happy riding on mules while the guide and myself climbed on foot.  The path could be treacherous were it not for the railings on the side of the trail.  Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava, the patron spiritual teacher of Bhutan spent time meditating in a cave  (“the tiger’s nest”)  at about 10,240 feet above sea level up on a cliffside where a complex of temples is now built.  It is the most popular pilgrimage and tourist destination in all of Bhutan.  The view on top was exhilarating.  We had a fantastic quiet time meditating inside one of the temple caves.

It began to rain as we reached the base of the mountain on our return.  We drove back to Paro and checked in to our hotel where we spent the rest of the evening recovering from the hike.  We enjoyed a walk around Paro at night, exploring shops after dinner and reflecting on the beautiful and surreal few days we’ve spent in Bhutan.  There were talks of visiting again and exploring other parts of this pristine country.

Memories of Bhutan linger – the beautiful countryside; its kind, gentle, polite and hospitable people; its magnificent dzongs and colorful temples; and the Himalayan peaks.  I have often wondered how Bhutan is being impacted by globalization, how the mind of its people, their way of life and culture are being slowly altered by influences from other countries through the internet, tv and movies.  Formerly isolated, Bhutan is now an experiment of a country slowly integrating itself to the rest of the world while maintaining its rich heritage and unique identity.

It was a reluctant goodbye as we flew out of Paro.  My children and I talked about our trip for the next few days.  They kept asking me as to when we are going back to visit again.

Special thanks to Shakun Goyal; to Her Majesty Queen Mother Ashi Tshering Pem Wangchuk (who made the trip possible); to Dasho Palden; to Capt. Sonam; and to my sons, Valmiki and Joshua for the wonderful adventures we shared.

All photos taken on a Leica M-A and 35mm Summilux,  expired Fujifilm Acros 100 black and white film .  All Rights Reserved, Hector S. Ramos, 2018. 

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Finland in February

I somehow find myself visiting Finland for work during the frigid month of February with regularity.  It seems there is some truth to the idea that once certain events happen at a certain time of the year, a pattern is established.

I got to stay with friends at a cozy, renovated ancestral house which has been standing strong and proud for over a hundred years and four generations. 

Porvoo, a small town outside Helsinki, is a Scandinavian winter beauty.  farm lands are blanketed with snow.  The rivers, lakes and the sea are frozen.  The dark and cold evening bluish light did not prevent me from venturing into the frozen sea to witness the silence, stillness and beautiful solitude.

The highlight of my trip?  An alone time in a sweltering sauna and getting to roll my body (fully naked in typical Finnish fashion) outside onto the snow before running back into the sauna again.  But I have no photo to show for it.  My friends plan to have me do the next step up next winter: sauna and a dip into a frozen lake.  I haven't agreed to that yet.  However, for a change, I plan for a visit next summer to photograph the wedding of their daughter.

Hannele and Magnus.

Hannele and Magnus.


New York (Some Photos), March 2016

I have been wanting to post some photographs from a New York trip two years back.  The month of September which just passed reminded of my two-day photographic walk.  Looking at my father-in-law's still perfect silver hallide black and white prints from the early 60s finally convinced me to overcome my inertia. The creative work of picture-making has been mostly enjoyable and fluid for me.  It is the organizing and sharing part that I tend to overthink and delay always wanting to share meaningful photographs.  My constant travel for work gives me an opportunity to make images but doesn't leave me much room for developing, scanning, editing and posting.  Add to this a new born baby and I have perfect excuse for not tending to my photographic work which actually regenerates me, creating an inner sense of balance and harmony.  

I may need to learn how to shoot self-assignments with a theme instead of the random, 'shoot the moment when it catches you' style of photography typified by the following photos.  But walking the streets of NYC gives you random slices of life which encourages this random picture making.  I am certain some of the photographs will evoke thoughts and feelings unique to each one of us.  Some of them are meaningful to me, some are just for fun.

Guess who I am photographing.

Guess who I am photographing.

My favorite among the lot.  I glanced over my left shoulder, saw this image, instinctively lifted my camera (which was without any battery), and without any time to focus nor think of the exposure, pressed the shutter release button.  The image was gone in a second. He stepped into the sunlight passing through in between tall Manhattan buildings and into the dark shadows. I got lucky.

My favorite among the lot.  I glanced over my left shoulder, saw this image, instinctively lifted my camera (which was without any battery), and without any time to focus nor think of the exposure, pressed the shutter release button.  The image was gone in a second. He stepped into the sunlight passing through in between tall Manhattan buildings and into the dark shadows. I got lucky.

A police officer.

A police officer.

Not me please.

Not me please.





September 11 Memorial

September 11 Memorial

I saw people say prayers, touch the name of loved ones, shed tears and tell stories, and put rose flowers.  September 11 Memorial.

I saw people say prayers, touch the name of loved ones, shed tears and tell stories, and put rose flowers.  September 11 Memorial.

Our collective pain.  September 11 Memorial.  

Our collective pain.  September 11 Memorial.  

Musings in Ladakh (with a Leica M9P)

In March 2012, I travelled to Ladakh with my wife and sister-in-law for one week.  We flew for an hour and 20 minutes from Delhi to Leh (3524 meters altitude).  The surrounding peaks were snowbound and the roads leading to Leh were closed due to winter conditions. Our guide, Norboo, picked us up from the airport and brought us to our hotel which was allegedly used by Brad Pitt when he was doing a shoot for Seven Years in Tibet.  We were told to lie down and rest for a day to acclimatize.  After a few hours of rest, the 'photographer's itch' got the better of me and I decided that the discomfort due to high altitude would not prevent me from going out sans my napping companions. My guide took me for a drive to nearby mountain passes and a few Buddhist Stupas and monasteries where I started taking pictures.

We were told later that visiting Ladakh in winter aggravated the effects of acute mountain sickness (high altitude sickness) due to lack of leaves on trees and plants which reduced the oxygen available for respiration.  I do not know how true this is but we had difficulty sleeping due to mild headache, dizziness,  breathlessness and fatigue.  My wife had to be taken to the army hospital in the middle of the night and to another physician the next day.  Luckily, her symptoms subsided and we were able to explore the different gompas or Buddhist monasteries.  It was a delight to roam inside the monasteries at a time of the year when there are not many tourists.  We took a particular liking to Thiksey Gompa (affiliated with the Gelug sect) which houses a beautiful 49-foot statue of Lord Maitreya, the future Buddha.  We also visited Hemis monastery which is connected to Naropa (the teacher of Marpa-who is the teacher of the famous Milarepa), and one of the main centers for the Kagyu sect of Buddhism.  It houses a large, intimidating statue of Lord Padmasambhava. We visited other beautiful monasteries with interiors adorned with colorful paintings and statues of Buddhist deities and important teachers.  Our guide happens to live in a small village known as Alchi.  The one-and-a-half hour drive from Leh to Alchi was spectacular with snow-capped high mountain passes and a stop at a monastery with a sweeping panorama of the Himalayan peaks. The monastery in Alchi from the 12th century has some of the most beautiful Indo-Tibetan , Buddhist-Hindu art and iconography.  It contains very impressive 13 to over 15 feet of colorfully painted wooden statues of three Bodhisattvas: Maitreya, Avalokiteshwara and Manjushri.  Unfortunately,  photography is not allowed.                     

My favorite travel camera is the Leica MP which I usually shot with Fujichrome Velvia slide film or Tri-X 400.  However, during this trip I decided to bring along the digital Leica M9P and shot it side by side with the MP.  Below are some of the photos from the M9P.  It's been almost five years since that trip and I must confess that my slide film pictures (even though I much prefer them) are still well preserved in boxes, not yet sorted out. not yet scanned and cannot be shared! (Only one photo had been scanned, printed, framed and sold.) Digital truly has some advantages, the ease of sharing photos being one of them.

Reminiscing India in Color

I was privileged to work in India from 1992 to 1995 and to have lived there from 1999 to 2010.  I worked with amazing people and became part of their families who  embraced me as one of their own.  I traveled extensively in different cities and villages, and photographed a lot. India and its people are one of the most colorful on earth.  The culture, custom, languages, philosophy, religion and people are so diverse which made travel and photography so stimulating.  I had the time of my life exploring.  The Garhwal Himalayas with its snow-capped peaks, sacred temples, mythical rivers with its ascetics became my favorite retreat place to escape the cities.  I also enjoyed the solitude in the deserts of Rajasthan and the tranquility of the backwaters in Kerala deep down south.  Varanasi always pulled me to spend time in her ghats observing people carrying on with ancient rites.

Looking at three suitcases at home full of color slides which easily number to a few thousands, I am overwhelmed by the amount of unorganized photographs and unprocessed life experiences.  The pictures below are a small sample and a feeble attempt to share some of the beautiful places in India which captivated my heart.

To those who are interested in photographic equipment: most of the images were taken with the Leica MP, 35 and 50 mm Summilux lenses, 75mm Summilux, 24mm Elmarit f2.8; some with the Nikon F5, 20-35mm and 80-200mm f2.8 lenses; mostly on Fujchrome Velvia 50 and some on Provia 100.

Bhagirathi Peaks in Gangotri area.  Considered the source of the sacred river Ganga.  We just folded our tents and commenced on our trek when the clouds and fog cleared.  Photo: Leica MP, 35mm Summilux, Velvia 50 on a monopod.

Shivling at Tapovan.  After hours of exhausting hike through dangerous glacial crevasses and steep climb we reached our camp.  It was mandatory for our five-man team to take a dip in the frigid icemelt...twice!  We met with a yogi meditating in a cave nearby.  Photo: Leica MP, 50mm Summilux, Velvia 50.

Kedarnath Shrine.  After a seven-hour trek we were rewarded with a magnificent view.  Photo: Leica MP, 50mm Summilux, Velvia 50.

Kedarnath Temple evening worship.  Photo: Leica MP, 35mm Summilux, Velvia 50.

Himalayan store on the way to Kedarnath.  Photo: Leica MP, Elmarit 24mm f2.8 lens, Velvia 50.

Sadhu.  Kedarnath.  Leica MP, 50mm Summilux, Velvia 50.

Me and my camel(and guide).  Jaisalmer.  I did a solo tour with plenty of Fuji Provia 100 film rolls gifted by Magnum photographer, Raghu Rai (one of my heroes).  Photo: Nikon F5, Nikon AFD 20-35mm f2.8 lens.

Samode Palace Dancer.  Leica MP, 35mm Summilux, Provia 100.

Ravana.  Jaisalmer.  Nikon F5, AFD 20-35mm f2.8 lens, Provia 100. 

Evening aarti.  Varanasi.  During a monsoon there were not many people at the river Ganga. This pujari kept up with his daily ritual alone.  It was beautiful to witness - sincere devotion.  It brought deep stillness in me.  Photo: Nikon F5, 20-35mm f2.8, SB-28 flash, Provia 100.

Fishing at sunrise.  Orissa.  I walked on a knee-deep calm water for several kilometers waiting for the sunrise.  My reward was being a witness to this couple.  Photo:  Nikon F5, AFD 80-200mm f2.8, Provia 100.

Tiger Hill, Darjeeling.  While waiting for the famed Kanchenjunga to appear,  the sun rays poured through the clouds.  Photo:  Nikon F5, AFD 80-200mm f2.8, Provia 100.

A fisherman at Mahabalipuram storm.  Leica MP, 35mm Summilux, Velvia 50.

Day's end.  Vembanad Lake, Kerala.  Photo: Nikon F5, AFD 80-200mm f2.8, Provia 100.

Kathakali dancer. Kumarakom, Kerala.  Photo: Leica MP, 75mm Summilux, Provia 100.

Kerala backwaters.  Photo: Leica MP, 35mm Summilux, Velvia 50. 

Lotus at Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Tamil Nadu.  Photo: Nikon F801s, AF 35-70mm, Kodak Elite 100.

Devotees at St. Thomas Chapel, Chennai, Tamil Nadu.  According to history, it is on the hill where the chapel is built that St. Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Lord Jesus, was martyred. Photo: Leica MP, 35mm Summilux, Provia 100.

My Friends' Wedding in Black and White

One of my greatest joy is shooting weddings for family, relatives and friends using black and white film. Black and white film has a timeless feel to it.  I use Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP5 due to the classic images they produce and of their very forgiving nature.  I sometimes push them to ISO 1600.  I also tried Ilford Delta 3200 but didn't quite like the results I got.

Shooting a wedding in many ways is easier than street photography. I have the license to shoot and the freedom from fear of offending anyone.  I like to disappear in the crowd as I record candid moments.  

The stealth of the film Lecia M due to its small size and quiet cloth shutter contributes a lot to putting people at ease and to the photographer becoming 'invisible'.  I also find that I can produce acceptably sharp photos even at slow shutter speeds like 1/4 or 1/2 seconds. I do not use flash and prefer the quality of images produced using available light.  The lack of LCD makes me always focused on anticipating moments. 

Using film for a once in a lifetime very important occasion can be unnerving.  Digital capture is much more reassuring; you know when the shot is in the bag.  But come to think of it, professional photographers covered weddings on film decades ago.  It's a matter of making sure your camera equipment is in very good working condition.  A back up should always be there. You should have your technical knowledge, pre-visualization, anticipation and instincts honed up to capture moments which will always remind the couple of their one very special day.  

Last August 8, 2015, I had the honor and privilege of photographing the wedding of two of my dearest friends in Amsterdam. 

Images were captured using Leica MP, M3, Leica M 50mm and 35mm Summilux lenses.

OMG! What have I done??? Did I just get married???!!!

Bollywood Dance!

Re-living My Childhood (Through My Children)

I was born in a remote, small village in the Philippines at a time when the place didn't have electricity, phone, tv, refrigerator, washing machine, etc.  The land and trees around and the hill behind our house were my playground.  A good half-hour climb (when we were kids), the hilltop provided a sweeping vista of the rice fields, coconut plantations, rainforest mountains at a distance, rivers and the Pacific Ocean. My sister, brother and I were blessed to have lived next to pristine nature, swim in crystal clear rivers, navigate through the labyrinth of the rain forest, wade through the waves of the powerful Pacific, enjoy exotic tropical fruits, walk under the canopy of coconut plantations, stroll through rice paddies, stargaze on pitch black nights, and be woken up by roosters every morning at five.  Vacation times and weekends felt like endless playtimes (though my parents were strict with us having siesta!)  Night times were spent listening to folk stories, singing, playing cards, scrabble, etc.  My grandparents, aunts and uncles helped take care of us.  Our family knew many of the families in our small town.  Not that life was perfect; far from it.  But I choose to focus right now on what made my childhood idyllic despite what many would consider lacking in many ways.

Since 1999, I have been attending an annual spiritual retreat in the Philippines and have been visiting my hometown frequently to reconnect with my parents, relatives, childhood friends and classmates, and to visit places which had shaped me as a person.  My ancestors had a saying: "you will not reach your planned destination if you do not look back to where you come from".

For the last two years of visits, I brought with me my sons and wife so that they can experience the places and flavors of my childhood.  I felt so much joy seeing them have a sample, a small taste of my early years in this planet and hoping they'd understand why I am who I am.


Gondola in Amsterdam

On my way back home after dropping my film rolls to the photolab, I spotted something unusual in one of the canals of Amsterdam.  For a second I thought I was in Venezia...a gondola!

I ran and took a few snaps delighted by the uncommon sight.  The boat docked and I caught up with the woman who was piloting the boat.  She told me she was waiting for a couple who scheduled a photoshoot in her boat.  She said she trained in Venice in a trade traditionally reserved for men.  She owns and operates a rare gondola in Amsterdam.  She was happy when I sent her pictures navigating the canals with her beloved gondola boat.

Images taken with 35 mm Summilux lens with orange filter.

Venice Past Midnight

Venice is one of the places I like to explore a lot at night.  Photo opportunities abound and you don't bump into anybody especially when you take a walk past midnight.  Plus there's no chance for you to splurge money on expensive items (perfect for window shopping-I told my wife).  Images were taken with a Leica MP and 50mm Summilux with Tri-X.  November 2015.

Rome at Night

I love walking around old cities at night usually with a friend or two just to enjoy the sights. Rome at night is beautiful and peaceful once the crowd has gone.

The first image is a handheld shot at maybe 1 second or 1/2 using Leica MP and a 50mm Summilux with Tri-X 400.  I love how the stars were recorded.  I feel lucky to have gotten a sharp image.  


Hector S. Ramos

Wimbledon by the Sea

The first image is of my brother-in-law, Mark, a professional squash player plays 'beach tennis' with one of my sons during a hot afternoon.  I love the beautiful form in silhouette, the 'peak action' moment plus the writing on the sand.

The second image shows the rest of the family hanging out and having fun.  I wanted to capture a moment of togetherness.

The third image is of my 12-year old son who is adept at soccer but is just learning how to play 'tennis'.

Seabrook Island, South Carolina, September 2016.  Leica MP, 35mm Summilux, Kodak Tri-X.