Until last week, it was possible for adventuresome travelers to go to the western shore of Savai’i Island, in the Pacific nation of Samoa, and watch the sunset tomorrow.
This daily novelty conjured images of the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, but as of midnight Dec. 29, it’s no longer a tourist attraction. Or even possible.
That’s when a kink in the International Dateline was officially straightened out, shifting the formidable demarcation from the west side to the east side of independent Samoa and its tiny neighbor, Tokelau.
“Time Travel — Thursday turns to Saturday” read the banner headline in Samoa’s prize-winning newspaper, the Samoa Observer, next morning. It was accompanied by a photo taken at midnight in downtown Apia, the capital, where people celebrated with honking horns, sirens, cheers and fireworks.
Now, clocks in independent Samoa are three hours ahead of Sydney, Australia; one hour ahead of Wellington, New Zealand, and 22 hours ahead of California, instead of 21 hours behind Australia and two hours behind California. (Or so I understand from the Internet; I tried calculating it myself, from past experience, and gave up.)
This means Samoans will be the first people in the world to greet the New Year, instead of the last. But the shift has a much more practical side:
Samoa’s current government sought the new dateline change, saying it made good business sense to be on the same calendar page as New Zealand and Australia, which are geographically and politically closer to it than is the United States.
Much closer, in fact: About 186,000 people live in Samoa, but almost that many Samoans live in New Zealand. Samoans have long sent their college-bound children to New Zealand and Australia, and most of independent Samoa’s tourism comes from those countries.
“In doing business with New Zealand and Australia, we’re losing out on two working days a week,” the prime minister explained in an earlier statement. “While its Friday here, it’s Saturday in New Zealand, and when we’re at church Sunday, they’re already conducting business in Sydney and Brisbane.”
To me, it seemed like trying to shift the Equator. But unlike the Equator, the dateline is flexible. It has always been fitted around the interests of different countries — witness the jog it makes in the Bering Strait, keeping Siberia on Russian time and Alaska on North American time.
In the Pacific, it now runs between two Samoas — the islands of independent Samoa on the west, and American Samoa on the east. Confusing? Try traveling across it. Or being Samoan.
Both Samoas were once politically together, as they still are ethnically and culturally. In the late 19th century, Germany and America tug-of-warred over them, but German claims ended after World War I. American Samoa remained in American control, while Western Samoa fell under New Zealand’s but became independent in 1962.
(In 1997, Western Samoa changed its name to just plain Samoa, despite protests from American Samoans, who claimed it diminished their identity. American Samoa is still a U.S. possession. Its 57,000 people are U.S. nationals, not U.S. citizens, and so cannot vote in U.S. elections.)
This isn’t the first time Samoa has been on the west side of the dateline. It was there until 1892, when U.S. interests persuaded its leaders to switch. So in a sense, independent Samoa is just going back to where it was. American Samoa , however, stays where it is — less than 150 miles away but on the same side of the dateline as the United States.
The change now gives American Samoa something new to offer visitors. As its tourism director told another Samoan newspaper, the Samoa News, “you could travel to Samoa and celebrate your birthday, and then the next day fly over to American Samoa, arrive yesterday and celebrate all over again. You can have two birthdays, wedding days, anniversaries, graduation parties and more.”
Calendar shifts are not exactly a new phenomenon, but ordinary folk historically have had trouble dealing with them.
When England switched from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, for example, there was an on-paper loss of 11 days. Eleven dates is a better way to say it: The days were still there, continuing their unstoppable march, but their number designations had changed.
An astrologer in London once told me that this made the common people very confused and angry: “They thought 11 days had been stolen from them,” she said, “and there were riots in the streets.”
Historians now say that those calendar riots were more stories than fact, the result of a satirical painting by William Hogarth. But the motto — “give us our 11 days” — stuck, at least in many people’s minds.
(That’s understandable: Remember how freaked out otherwise sensible people were about Y2K? I know well-educated folks who stockpiled drinking water, “just in case.”)
Shift in stages
At least, when it came to this dateline shift, independent Samoans were well-prepared. The government did it in stages.
In late 2009, it switched Samoa’s traffic from driving on the right, American-style, to driving on the left, the way Aussies and Kiwis do. That cleared the way for more imports of cars from New Zealand and Australia, and because of the shorter shipping distance, it made those cars cheaper for islanders.
But “nobody really knows what it’s like to skip 24 hours of life,” Mata’afa Keni Lesa wrote in a column for the Samoa Observer, just before Christmas.
“To be fair to the Government, we agree that the change is potentially sound,” Keni Lesa wrote. “Where we have a problem is that there is no guarantee that a time zone change will make life better for thousands of people who are struggling to make ends meet in this country today, which we believe should be the Government’s priority… How will it reduce the cost of living? How will it improve exports, which are sorely lacking in this country today?”
It’s too soon to know, of course, but the biggest fallout so far hasn’t been economic but religious. Independent Samoa’s Seventh Day Adventist Church split over the dateline change, with some churches switching Sabbath worship to the “new” Saturday, while others cling to the “old” one.
From a traveler’s point of view, time changes are still murky. I’ve flown across the International Dateline many times, in both directions, and figuring out what day it really is remains unsettling.
This fall, for example, I boarded an Air New Zealand plane in Los Angeles on Nov. 5, flew west all night and landed in Auckland late the next morning — which was Nov. 7. My Nov. 6 had simply disappeared.
The trade-off is similar to the one that ends Daylight Savings time here: You get the same day twice when you fly home. I left New Zealand in the evening of Nov. 16, flew for what seemed like forever, and got back to L.A. the afternoon of — Nov. 16. I haven’t really gotten my mind around that, either, but I’m blaming jetlag.