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Our Lady of the Duct Tape

by Mike Higgins Published in Bay Currents, May 2002

When I paddle a kayak in Baja, I keep a cheap, plastic, glow-in-the-dark, magnetic, Virgin duct-taped to my bow. When I refer to it as a "cheap plastic Virgin," I have seen other North Americans cringe and suggest that I add the word "Mary" to the end of that phrase. They are missing an important cultural point here. Yes, I am irreverent. But, the people who are most likely to be offended by my irreverence are the least likely to notice it. They almost always use the word Virgin, without "Maria" on the end of it.

On a kayak trip to Costa Rica a few years ago, our local guide told the story of a famous church built at the site of a miracle. He started out telling us that long ago a little girl walking in the mountains found "a little black Virgin" in a cave. For a few seconds I wondered how a small female person of African origin who had never had intercourse with a man could have found her way to Central America. However, as the rest of the story was told, it finally dawned on me that what the little girl actually found was "a small statue of The Virgin Mary carved out of black stone."

In many Catholic countries, and especially in Central America, it isn't necessary to put all of those extra descriptive words into a sentence. They simply lean a little bit on the word Virgin so you can hear the Capital Letter, and everyone is supposed to understand what they are talking about.

In Mexico they have the miracle of "Our Lady of Guadalupe." The people of that country hold her in great esteem. If I were a cardinal in the Vatican (a terrible fate for the Vatican, and for me but just for the sake of argument), I would decree that the feelings of the Catholics of Central America for that lady are dangerously close to heretical idolatry.

On one of my first ever BASK General Meetings the slide show was from three guys who had recently paddled on the Sea of Cortez in Baja. They got used to pulling their boats up above the high tide line and expecting them to be safe there. On the whole the people of Baja are honest and trustworthy. Unfortunately, when they got to Loreto two of the three kayaks were ransacked and everything of value was stolen while they went into town for a restaurant meal. Later when they asked the locals why the thieves (probably imports from the mainland) had left one of the boats untouched, the locals told them, "Oh! THAT boat is under the protection of The Virgin!"

It turns out the owner of THAT boat had found a little promotional statue of Princess Leia from the Star Wars movie floating in the water. He had duct-taped it to his bow and the Mexicans, even the thieves, had assumed it was a statue of The Virgin Maria. Even the thieves were unwilling to risk offending a statue that only vaguely resembled that lady.

When I started kayaking in Baja, I remembered that story and wanted to get a cheap plastic Virgin to protect my boat. Finally, last year I found a source. The Archie McPhee catalog (online at has 4-packs of 2-1/2-inch "Glow Marias" at a reasonable price. I took them with me on a trip to Baja last December. One stuck to the dash of my car to deter thieves while it was parked, one duct-taped to the bow of my boat, one stuck to the bow of John Somers' boat, and one left over for emergencies. I expected secular protection from thieves, John seemed to expect supernatural protection from wind and waves. (We did have exceptionally good weather for December.)

Penny Wells often suggests that on a kayak expedition you bring a "secret treat" to share with everyone else when the "time is right." The usual suggestion is chocolate to share at the end of a day fighting a head wind. Another thing that Penny has introduced me to is the "Shrine of the Virgin," a rock on the side of the road in the Catevena Boulder Field in Baja. On every trip to Baja I stop there to look at Our Lady of Guadalupe painted on this rock. So, on my most recent trip I brought a large supply of "cheap plastic Virgins" and was able to present one to each of my traveling companions, including Penny. This was my secret treat. We assume that they received a special blessing from the shrine. Either that, or I will burn in hell for my irreverences.

On the way back we were stopped at numerous drug checkpoints. At one of them they actually searched the car diligently enough to find a small plastic bag stuffed under the driver's seat. The soldier who found it pulled it out expectantly, only to be surprised to find he was holding a bag full of little statues of The Virgin. Penny was nearby and assured him they were gifts for friends and they let us go. Cheated Death Again!

So, I have become fond of Our Lady of the Duct Tape, and have taken to leaving her on the dashboard of my car, even when I'm not driving in Baja. But, I still refer to it as a "cheap plastic Virgin."

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