Across the great divide of time

Because my wife and I have become masters of low-budget travel, our friends come to us for advice. So imagine my embarrassment the day I forgot about the international date line.

The date line is a fascinating concept that you can neither see nor touch. It is an imaginary line that divides the Eastern Hemisphere (including Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia) from the Western (North and South America), allowing travelers to keep track of the date. Without the date line, if you were to travel west for a few days and return home, you would find one more day had passed than you had reckoned on.

This began when explorer Ferdinand Magellan returned from circumnavigating the world to find his friends welcoming him home on a Tuesday when he thought it was 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, even though the sun has barely moved.

The whole idea of an imaginary line that defines days can be confusing, 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 on it.

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 barbecue on the same day.

Even more seemingly arbitrary reasons are responsible for the line being drawn 180 degrees from the prime meridian at Greenwich, England. The prime meridian, another imaginary line, is used to divide the Earth in two and is thus fuel for another story entirely.

To further complicate matters, a new day officially begins at the prime meridian and not at the dateline. You can thank US 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 midnight at Greenwich.

They also decided that all longitude would be calculated at 180 degrees, both east and west from the prime meridian.

Before the 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 date line, half your body is in one day while the other half is in another, even though no time has passed.

I have a friend who, after moving from London to Los Angeles, lamented the fact that he had lost an entire day from his life forever.

I have crossed the date line countless times, so there was 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, but because I had forgotten to factor in the date line, we arrived a day late.

We were faced with choosing between the Forbidden City or walking on the Great Wall. We chose the 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 date line.

The story spread far and wide. My best friend would make a lunch date, and then call to see if I remembered what day it was.

I did not mind being the main story at dinner parties, but I vowed never to let it happen again. I became a fanatic for punctuality, arriving on the very dot of the appointed hour for every engagement.

I lecture frequently about our travels, and several weeks after returning from China, I arrived at a local bookstore for a presentation. It was at a Magellan's travel store, named after the 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 felt good about attracting such a crowd, when the store owner approached to ask where I had been.

It was now 8 p.m., and I was supposed to have begun at 7.

Before I could say one word, a woman's voice piped up, "It's OK, son, even Magellan was a day late."

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