Crossing the International Dateline

The author and his wife on the Great Wall of China.
The author and his wife on the Great Wall of China.

My wife and I don’t think of our travels as vacations but rather as a way of life. I have always believed the best way to learn about the world and its people is to see it and meet them yourself, so when we are not on a trip, we are planning one.

This might seem like an extreme luxury to many folks, but from the start, I have done my homework and over the years have become a master of budget traveling. With a little research, you would be amazed how easily you can get yourself to the other side of the world without spending much money. My friends all know how much effort I put into planning each trip and are amazed when I tell them how little I spend on them.

Because of this, my friends come to me for travel advice, so imagine my embarrassment the day I forgot about the International Dateline.

The Dateline is a fascinating concept you can neither see nor touch. It is, in fact, an imaginary line that divides the Eastern Hemisphere of the world from the Western, allowing travelers to keep track of the date. We measure days by the rising and setting of the sun. If you were to travel west for a few days and return home, without the Dateline, you would find one more day had passed than you had reckoned on.

This all began when Magellan returned home from circumnavigating the world to find his friends welcoming him home on a Tuesday when he thought it was still Monday. If you travel east, the reverse holds true. You would return one day sooner than expected, as Jules Verne’s intrepid explorer Phineas Fogg found out in “Around the World in 80 Days.”

To simplify things, it is one day on one side of the line and a different day on the other side even though the sun has barely moved.

The whole idea of an imaginary line that defines days is very confusing to some people, especially since the line is an arbitrary device that has no connection to international law and has been changed many times for the convenience of those who live upon it.

Most recently the island nation of Kiribati moved the dateline in 1995, since it ran through the middle of the country. Kiribatians got tired of leaving home on Sunday to visit their relatives on Monday, even though they lived just across the street. So they tweaked the line a bit to make sure everyone was at the BBQ on the same date.

Even more unexplained reasons are responsible for the line being drawn at 180 degrees from the Prime Meridian at Greenwich, England.

The Prime Meridian, being another imaginary line, is used to divide the earth and is thus fuel for another story entirely. The chief rationale behind the line’s present, meandering locale is that it runs through water making it mostly inoffensive to those of us who mostly dwell on land.

To further complicate matters, the new day officially begins in Greenwich England at the Prime Meridian and not at the Dateline. You can thank our own President Chester Arthur for that. In 1884 he convened a conference of 25 nations to decide on a single Universal Day, and they agreed this should begin at mean midnight at Greenwich. They also decided that all longitude would be calculated at 180 degrees, both east and west from the Prime Meridian. They all agreed except for the French, who of course believe every thing begins and ends in Paris, but what can you do?

If you buy a book at the venerable store of Shakespeare and Co. directly across the river from Notre Dame, it will be stamped with the seal, “Longitude 0” C’est La Vie. Before Arthur’s conference, there were several meridians in use, so if you were British, it might be Tuesday, but if you were Russian, it might be Thursday.

Some people just cannot grasp the idea that if you straddle the Dateline; half of your body is living in one day while the other half is in another, even though no time has passed. I have debated the Dateline with fellow travelers and walked away with my head spinning, for the more you think about how it works, the more confusing it can be.

I have a friend who after moving from London to Los Angeles, lamented the fact that he has lost an entire day from his life forever. I myself have crossed the Dateline countless times, so there is no reason to think I would ever forget its importance, until I did.

On a recent trip to China we had limited time and much to see. I had arranged for a driver to meet us in Beijing and sent him an itinerary that would keep us moving at a brisk pace for several days. Every moment was accounted for, and because I had forgotten to factor in the Dateline, we arrived a day late.

Upon arrival, we were faced with choosing between the Forbidden City or walking on the Great Wall. We chose the Great Wall, and much to my chagrin, had to return home and tell our friends we had been to Beijing but had not seen the Forbidden City. This was a source of great amusement to them for months to come. The world travelers had forgotten about the International Dateline.

The story spread far and wide. My best friend would make a lunch date, then call to see if I remembered what day it was. I did not mind being the main story at dinner parties for the next several months, but I vowed to never let it happen again. I became a fanatic for punctuality, arriving on the very dot of the appointed hour for every engagement. Thereafter people knew they could set their watch by my arrival time.

I lecture frequently about our travels, and several weeks after returning from China, I arrived at a local bookstore for a heavily advertised presentation.

It was a Magellan’s travel store, named after the very circumnavigator for whose confusion the Dateline was created in the first place. I was surprised to see a full house already sitting in attendance when I arrived, and I felt good about attracting such a crowd – when the storeowner approached to ask where I had been.

It was now 8 p.m. and I was supposed to begin at 7p.m.

I tried to save face by starting my talk with a joke about crossing too many time zones lately. I was immediately put at ease by a tiny lady in the front row who piped up, “It’s Okay, son, even Magellan was a day late.”

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Janna Graber

Senior editor Janna Graber has been covering travel for more than a decade. She has traveled to 38 countries -- and counting.
Janna Graber
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