Whether you’re vacationing or roaming around the world, it’s helpful to know some of the history of the places you’re visiting. For instance, you may be walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ or Abraham, or of Mayan kings, Spanish grand dukes or Chinese emperors, or of legendary artists, philosophers, composers and others who made profound marks on the annals of time. Here’s a cross-section of historical nuggets that might help enrich the experiences of your travels:
“La Cucaracha”: A Chart Topper in 1492
The year 1492 was a red letter year for Spain. It started off with a bang on Jan. 2 when the Christian armies of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella trounced the Muslims at Granada — topping off the reconquest of the country and ending 800 years of Muslim rule. The royal duo made the headlines again on March 31 when they issued Spain’s “Edict of Expulsion” — booting the Jews out of Spain unless they converted to Catholicism by July 31. Then, backed by the monarchs, Christopher Columbus on Aug. 3 set sail from the Spanish riverside village of Palos de Frontera to cross the Atlantic and discover the “New World” on Oct. 12.
Oddly enough, there’s a song the Christian troopers might have sung as they charged the ramparts of Granada, and the Jews might have sung when they hit the road out of Spain. Columbus’ sailors might have sung it, too. The song — “La Cucaracha” (centuries later sung by Pancho Villa’s rebels in the Mexican revolution) — was one of the big hits of 1492.
A Baker’s Dozen
Back in the Dark Ages, there was a period when wholesale bread bakers in Germany began seriously cheating their customers. The scam was, they started to short the number of loaves delivered to retailers (so a retailer who paid for, say, 12 loaves actually got 11 to sell to the public). When news of the rip-off reached the king’s palace, he levied laws — keeping in mind bread was a staple of medieval life — requiring the bakers to come through with the full orders or face harsh punishment. The term “a baker’s dozen” came from this time period when wholesale bakers began tossing in a bonus loaf (meaning in this case 13 loaves instead of 12) to be certain their retailers’ count would be correct or even over the amount decreed by law.
It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … No, it’s Quetzalcoatl
Thousands of years ago Mexico’s top god was a flying snake called Quetzalcoatl. According to a popular legend, he was a good god and was beloved by his people. But he was too good (for instance, he hardly ever required human sacrifices), so his less liberal priests conspired to get rid of him. One day, they tricked him into doing something that today would be described as, er, inappropriate.
After that, he left town and traveled far across the eastern sea to repent. According to the legend, he told his people he’d eventually come back, and to look for a bearded stranger with fair skin. Fast forward a century, and guess who showed up — on Quetzalcoatl’s birthday, no less: Hernán Cortés and 500 bearded conquistadores from Spain. They snatched Mexico away from the king of the Aztec rulers, who didn’t put up much of a fight because he thought Cortés might have been Quetzalcoatl.
I Am Not a Sailor: Behind the Words of “La Bamba”
Take a centuries-old Mexican folksong (said to be from Veracruz), pep it up with a rock beat, cut a chart-topping recording of it by a teen idol in the United States, then feature it in a hit movie, and you’ve got what worldwide fans know as “La Bamba.” Everyone sings along when the song’s arguably best-known line comes up: “Yo no soy marinero, yo no soy marinero, soy capitán, soy capitán” (I am not a sailor, I am not a sailor, I am the captain, I am the captain). What does being a captain have to do with the rest of the song? “Not much, if anything,” says Mexico historian Jaime Capulli. “It’s possible it meant something to the guy who wrote [the song] hundreds of years ago — whoever that was — or maybe someone slipped those words in later on.”
Many — but not all — Latino musicologists agree that the name of the song relates to the Spanish word “bambolear,” roughly meaning to shake. Beyond that, though, the oft-improvised lyrics run the gamut from a happy Mexican wedding dance tune to tales of lamented love. (A version from Lila Downs’ “One Blood” album comes pretty close to the authentic jarocho style of Veracruz.)
Could “La Bamba” have come from Africa? One theory of the song’s origin traces it to the Mbamba people living along the Bamba River in Angola and Congo in southwest Africa. “La Bamba,” this theory says, started out as a work song of slaves from this area who wound up on plantations around Veracruz. Getting back to those iconic sailor-captain lines in the modern-day song, ask folks living in Veracruz what they mean. The answer you’ll most often get is, “quién sabe” (who knows).
Celebrating a Victory in Beit She’an
If you’re like most first-time visitors to Israel, you probably never heard of the Decapolis, much less places like Scythopolis or Hippos. But sometime during your stay — while out seeing religious and historic sites seemingly spread over every square inch of that country — you’ll likely find yourself in the boots of Roman legions parading down the columned lanes of Scythopolis.
By then you’ve learned that Scythopolis — known today as Beit She’an — was the capital of the Decapolis, a league of 10 Roman powerhouse city-states mostly in northern Jordan. Among the others were Philadelphia (now Amman, Jordan’s capital), Gerasa (now Jerash, Jordan’s second most-visited city after Petra) and the Syrian capital of Damascus. Mosey around the sprawling, 370-acre site of Beit She’an and you can see why this magnificent city became the superstar of the league after the Roman general Pompey rebuilt it around 63 B.C. In the civic center, it’s easy to imagine yourself in full Roman battle garb, marching down a lane lined by 20-foot-high columns to the cheers of 40,000 local folks hailing the return of your victorious legion.
Shake Your Booty with the Garifunas in Belize
Chances are you’ve seen the oft-played TV commercial about gorgeous places to settle down in Belize on the Caribbean coast of Central America. In the ad, we learn about the laid-back style of living there on idyllic, palm-dotted islands along the mainland’s sugary white beaches — but for some reason, all to a rather dreary mood set by elevator music.
Actually, visitors to Belize (formerly British Honduras) will hear several peppy brands of homegrown music. One, a popular booty-shaker along the country’s coastal villages, is “punta” music. It comes from a mishmash of cultures, starting with the Carib Indians whose ancestors from South America started migrating up the chain of Caribbean islands thousands of years ago. Later on, Africans from a wrecked slave ship ended up on the island of St. Vincent, wed with the Caribs, resulting in what are now today the Garifuna people (also called “Black Caribs by the British colonial administration). The cultural stewpot next boiled over with French spices, then English mutton for body. The Brits — to punish the Garifuna people for siding with the French in several wars — moved them to the Honduras Bay island of Roatan, after which a good number of them drifted over to settlements on the Central American mainland.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Belize on Nov. 19, you’re welcome to join thousands of Garifuna people parading, partying, shaking their body lines to punta tunes and otherwise celebrating their Afro-Caribbean/French/British roots. That day is their annual Garifuna Settlement Day, marking the settlement of the villages long ago on the beaches of Belize.