About a year and a half ago, Dean Pagani decided to chuck it all. A longtime fixture of Connecticut politics, public relations and journalism, Pagani quit his job at a prestigious Hartford communications firm and started a photography business.
Then the 59-year-old single man set out on a four-month trip around the world that took him from the stifling jungles of Vietnam to the chaotic streets of India to the desolate southern tip of South America. As he traveled — this was before COVID-19 shut down the world — he meticulously chronicled his journey in detailed essays and numerous photographs posted to a website he dubbed “This Decisive Moment” and his Facebook page.
After nearly 40 years in journalism and government, including stints at Connecticut radio stations, as Gov. John Rowland’s press secretary and chief of staff, and communications director for former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Pagani felt unfulfilled. He was unhappy with how he was using all of his knowledge and experience. “I thought I could do something different and better and more focused,” Pagani says from his Glastonbury home. “I’m in the last third of my life. What am I going to do with it? Keep going to the office, working 9-to-5 and just pounding it out and retiring, or am I going to live? That’s kind of why I did this.”
After contemplating the journey for a year — he admits having to overcome an aversion to spending money instilled in him by his Depression-scarred parents — Pagani settled on a route that took him from Asia to Europe to South America. Using twin criteria of beautiful places to photograph and having historical significance, he settled on nine countries: Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, India, Spain, Peru, Chile and Argentina. He considered adding Iran and Cuba but ruled them out when political conditions in both countries deteriorated. He traveled rough, staying in hostels and inexpensive hotels, eating in non-tourist restaurants and taking local transit.
Pagani’s goal was to do what he feels he does best — observe, draw conclusions and share those conclusions. “I didn’t formally interview people. I just talked to them. I just listened to what they were sharing and, based on my observations, I wrote about the conclusions I made.”
Two universal themes emerged: economic justice and environmental degradation. Wherever Pagani went, those two things topped people’s concerns. The air in India, for example, was so bad that a newspaper headline proclaimed one city “a gas chamber.” Pagani had a persistent cough by the time he left the country. He arrived in Santiago, Chile, just before unrest that started over a transit fare increase and morphed into protests against income inequality.
As a former government official, Pagani was upset and embarrassed by the corruption and failure to serve the public interest he witnessed in the places he visited. Indian officials, for example, were doing little to curb the nation’s horrendous air quality. “I know people will question my time in government service because the person I worked for [Rowland] ended up going to prison,” says Pagani, who was never implicated in or linked to the scandals of his former boss’ administration. “But I have to say, in my main time in government, we all felt we were working under the belief system to do right by the people.”
A Republican — he’s quick to say he does not support President Donald Trump “in any way, shape or form” — Pagani says his trip demonstrated the limits of his party’s relentless drive to deregulate. “Go to a place like Vietnam and India and see how you like a total lack of regulation,” he says. “In some ways, it’s the Wild West: anything goes.”
Something else Pagani learned: People for the most part like and look up to our country. Everywhere he went — even Vietnam — people reacted positively when he said he was an American, with many saying they love the U.S. and want to visit. Americans, Pagani says, don’t understand the degree to which we dominate the world, not only politically but culturally as well. New York Yankees caps and T-shirts that read “Brooklyn,” for example, were everywhere, even in the remotest locations, and cab drivers who otherwise speak not a word of English can sing along to American music on the radio, he says.
Inevitably, people asked Pagani about Trump. Many are more bemused than concerned by the president and view him as a passing phase, he says. But others, like the smart, talented young man Pagani met in Chile who wanted to come to the U.S., have gotten a loud and clear message from Trump that they are not welcome. That deeply pained Pagani because America needs people like that impressive young man, he says.
Pagani’s favorite places were Nepal, San Sebastián in Spain’s Basque Country, Chile, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, even though he was robbed there on the last day of his trip.
So is there a book in the offing? Pagani is still mulling that over but leaning against it, as there are already so many similar books on the market. And another trip? “Oh yeah, definitely,” Pagani says. “There’s a lot of the world I haven’t seen.”