The Millennium On Fiji

Raced To Be The First

As the United States prepared to celebrate the new year, other parts of the world had already welcomed it.

More than 24 hours before new year hit the United States, the countdown to 2000 began on the Fijian island of Taveuni, one of the few places where the 180th parallel cuts through solid land.

48 Hours Correspondent Bill Lagattuta is reporting on the festivities there. A member of Lagattuta's team on Fiji, Dawn Westlake, has been emailing these Web-exclusive notes to Read the story behind the story.

The Time Zone Sweepstakes

Nada, Fiji, Dec. 26, 1999: In the race to be the first country to see the new year and the new millennium, the South Pacific island nation of Fiji had stiff competition from Tonga and Kiribati. Tonga changed its time zone, while Kiribati moved the international dateline.

In an attempt to reclaim its title, Fiji, in late 1998, introduced daylight-saving time and put its clocks forward one hour from November to February.

In this context, figuring out the correct time could be confusing. On the Air New Zealand flight over from Los Angeles, I looked at the "time at destination" screen in the cabin; it gave the time as an hour earlier than what the pilot was announcing.

After some effort (it was Boxing Day, and many stores were closed), I finally found the correct time and got to my hotel. The millennium creates strange juxtapositions: Pigs and cows and chickens and horses roam freely in people's yards outside this hotel, and here I am emailing this note


A Polyglot Island

Nadi, Fiji, Dec. 27, 1999: On the eve of the new millennium, not much has changed in Fiji. The current population, estimated at 750,000, supports an amazing mix of color, language and culture. Indigenous Fijians make up about half the population; Indians are about 46 percent, while other groups (predominantly Chinese, Polynesian and European) make up the remainder.

Fiji has three official languages. Fijians speak Fijian, Indians speak Hindi (or a dialect they call "Fiji Bat"), and the groups speak English between them, and to visitors. All education is conducted in English.

Interestingly, the first Fijian dictionary was published in 1999, financed by an initiative, and money left by the late Raymond Burr, of Perry Mason fame. Burr left behind an impressive mix of orchids and native plants in his Garden of the Sleeping iant, a 50-acre plot he cultivated.

His former orchid-growing partners, Don and Aileen Burness, showed me around today. Mr. Burness is a fourth-generation Fijian. In 1874, his great-grandfather Wilkinson signed the Deed of Cession of Fiji, which gave the island to the British crown.

Next stop is the Garden Isle of the Fijian chain, Taveuni, where I will file from the 180th parallel, the international dateline.

Vinaka (Thank you),

What Time Is It?

Nadi, Fiji, Dec. 29, 1999: Situated on the international dateline, Taveuni has a unique place in millennial history: It is the first and last land mass to see the year 2000. Walking along the road to photograph the 180th meridian marker, I was approached by a 12-year-old girl named Tui, who informed me that the dateline actually runs right through her house!

And Taveuni has some competition in the race for first into the new year. In 1978, Richard Evanson, the owner of Turtle Island, which is nearby, set the clocks ahead during shooting of the The Blue Lagoon, to accommodate the cinematographer's need for more light.

Evanson kept his island on "Turtle Time," and as a result, Cheryl Berthelsen and her fiance Matt Beach will become the first married couple of the new century when they exchange vows on the island at midnight on December 31.

They'd been planning to marry in Virginia, where they live, but when the planning became too stressful, they bought the Turtle Island wedding package on, for just over $15,000.


Old Ways in the New Millennium

Taveuni, Fiji, Dec. 30, 1999: These days, Taveuni is playing host to a world of cultures, as media and tourists converge at the 180th meridian to welcome the new year. At the same time, they are trying to hold onto their own culture and traditions.

The cornerstone of the culture is the sevu-sevu, a presentation of a whale's tooth to the tribal ratu, or chief, and the accompanying yaqona or kava root ceremony. The kava is strained through dried taro and mixed with water to make a delicious drink (think of a martini without the alcohol), which is shared among participants.

Today, I attended a festival of Fijian culture at a nearby village, Qeleni.

Once the island exported cotton, pineapple and sandalwood. Taveuni is now experiencing a brain drain as younger people leave the island in search of higher education in Suva, Fiji's capital, and in foreign countries. Often, they don't return.

"As they go to the urban centers, they gain knowledge, but they forget their culture," said one man from the village, Ratu Eliki Bomani. "It would be nice for them to come back and use their education to better things here...appreciating the values of this culture," added another man, Ratu Jone Ganilau.

Ironically, both men have both relocated to Suva, and say that if they stayed on Taveuni, the leadership in Suva would not listen to their island's concerns.


Bearing The Stamp Of Time

Taveuni, Fiji, Dec. 31, 1999: To celebrate the new year, Taveuni has named a field running along the 180th meridian "Millennium Park." There, preparations are under way for the big night. While they waited for sunset to arrive, a group boys used the park to play a game that involved kicking empty plastic soda bottles across the dateline.

Boys kick a Coke can across the international date line in Fiji.
For the celebration, the 180th meridian is being lit with tuna cans stuffed with sawdust and diesel fuel. This afternoon, the man who was the head of the "Light Committee," prepared by having his daughter time the duration of each "candle."

Taveuni's post office has set up a special outdoor mailing center, to accomodate those who want to send letters bearing the first postmark of the new millennium. The center was crowded with Americans, Germans, Koreans, Australians and others, including Fijians visiting from other islands.

The postmistress promised each customer that she would start stamping all cards and letters at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2000. Starting at midnight, a collector's edition of Fijian stamps with millennium designs will be sold, for approximately $33.

Happy New Year,

The Big Moment Finally Arrives

Taveuni, Fiji, Jan. 1, 2000: Only about 500 people gathered in Millennium Park at the starting line of 2000, but there was great excitement among the multi-national revellers nonetheless. A hush fell over the crowd as the native lali drum was beaten to herald the beginning of the countdown at ten minutes to midnight. Then, a large torchbearer in a banana leaf skirt, wrist and ankle bands walked solemnly along the 180 meridian, lighting the tuna cans stuffed with diesel-soaked sawdust set up there the day before by the local 'light committee'.

The actual countdown was confusing for the 48 Hours crew as the Apostolic minister who'd been preaching to the crowd since 7pm was still on the mike, and he began to count UP to the new year, instead of down. We heard "30, 31, 32..." and then suddenly, "14,13,12..." The heat was on! Bill began talking and suddenly Roman candles went off behind him and a champagne cork popped right by my ear. Then, someone began dousing me, so I crouched over my diital camera and began running away from the crowd, down the international dateline! Once all was clear, I found San Francisco Bay Area residents Valda Chang and Alex Fung posing for pictures. Back at the hotel, the staff was throwing each other into the pool. It's a Fijian custom to enter the new year wet and rolled in flour. Sorry, no pictures of that...I don't have a 'paste-guard' for my camera.

Marau Nium Baki, everyone! (Happy New Year!)

Produced by David Kohn;