Lending a Hand to Peru, Returning to the Closet

– Tymon Manning, RPCV 2011-13

As a muscled male model playfully flits across the screen on my favorite Peruvian show, “Combate,” my host sister calls him, in English, a butterfly.

“Como se dice ‘butterfly’ en Español?” I innocently ask. “Homosexual,” she replies.

A smile is all I can think of as an appropriate response. To pursue this point any further would bring my own sexual orientation into question — or so I fear.

To ignore it, however, is to silently condone the stereotypes I openly fought back in the US. I am very clear on that point.

Welcome to the awkward world of reentering the closet as a Peace Corps volunteer in a Third World country.

I want to make clear at the outset that I would never accuse the Peace Corps of forcing its volunteers into the closet. To be sure, I have been encouraged to keep my sexual orientation to myself. But I was similarly urged not to date a Peruvian woman in the community where I live and work.

The advice regarding my sexual orientation is, unfortunately, appropriate, regrettable as that is. The suggestions regarding dating locals, I must confess, have actually come in handy as an excuse for not pursuing women here.

As an American, I am already viewed as an outsider in Peru. I have little doubt that being out as a gay man would make my work here impossible. I have known and heard of LGBT volunteers who headed home early because of problems, including harassment that ensued from their sexual orientation becoming known. Some who departed have publicly accused the Peace Corps of homophobia, of not supporting their LGBT volunteers, and of contributing to the ignorance about gay people in the places where they work.

My experience has been my own; I can’t speak to the experiences of others nor can I lay out exactly what future LGBT volunteers should expect.

When applying to the Peace Corps, I decided to discuss my sexual orientation with the recruiter, concluding that no good would come from dishonesty or obfuscation. My bigger concern, in fact, was my vegetarianism, but that is another issue — a failed one, at that.

From the time I came out in the application process, I received a very real picture of what life could and probably would be like for me were I to press on with my effort to join. Peace Corps personnel directed me to a range of helpful information resources and lauded me for my alleged bravery. I exchanged sporadic emails with current and returned volunteers from countries around the world, but without knowing where I would be placed, I wasn’t able to assemble a clear picture of exactly how my experience would play out.

As I later found out, no one can tell you what your experience will be like, and the advice I received from those initial emails was really no different than what I heard from volunteers in Peru once I learned of my assignment.

The information I drew from my correspondences and research fell into three general categories:

Your experience as an LGBT volunteer will vary primarily based on your country assignment and your work site.


The author with local youths in the Peruvian mountain community where he serves as Peace Corp volunteer.

The author with local youths in the Peruvian mountain community where he serves as Peace Corp volunteer.

I currently serve in the mountains of Peru’s poorest state, and it is a very conservative community. Except for the anecdote I described above and one other occasion with my host parents, sexual orientation has not come up in discussions with anyone in my town.

A fellow volunteer, however, has observed a gay community in her town. I can’t say for sure if I would reveal my sexual orientation were I working in her town, but it would present a completely different situation. She tells me she is free to discuss homosexuality in her classes and in working on her projects. Given the lack of discourse on the subject in my town, I frankly fear that broaching it would likely point the gay finger at me as it sometimes does even in places in the US where homosexuality remains invisible.

It’s worth noting that the advice I got talked about the significance of the country assignment, not the specifics of Peace Corp leadership on the ground. Peace Corps staff in-country play a huge role in our experiences, but they are well trained to be sensitive to LGBT issues. I have rarely encountered anything offensive from PC leadership regarding my sexual orientation, and have never come across any malicious intent.

In fact, I was recently invited to the Lima office to assist in an LGBT sensitivity training for our regional coordinators and Peace Corps volunteer leaders.

Gay life in Peru seems defined largely by the concentration of the nation’s population in Lima, the capital, where nearly 30 percent of its residents live. In fact, the capital’s preeminence has all sorts of implications for its culture. A gay night out means traveling to the Miraflores district in Lima, where gay clubs exist and same-sex couples hold hands in public.

I have also visited two of Peru’s other large cities, much less populous than Lima; gaycities.com offered nothing for me there and Grindr became a ghost town. One returned volunteer claimed other large cities besides Lima have gay clubs, but they have eluded me.

When I am in Lima, it screams progress. My tiny town does not. PC Peru is keenly aware of the differences, and its leaders’ advice that I use discretion regarding my sexual orientation where I live seems to me altogether sound.

You will likely feel conflicted about hiding your identity as a gay man and “reentering the closet,” so regular communication with friends who know you as a gay man is key.


The author may be “flaquito,” but while dancing with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, he gets no other flak.

At times, I feel I am losing my integrity by hiding what I deem a very integral part of who I am. Foucault might kick me for saying this, but my sexual orientation has really helped me define who I am.

I am constantly reminding myself, however, that my job in Peru is not to spread the acceptance of openly gay lives but to improve the community in which I now live and work. It would be wonderful if bringing a boyfriend home to my host family meant they would worry about whether he was enjoying their meals rather than question my motives as a gay man in their community.

The Peace Corps has no Rural Homosexuality Promotion Program; many of the communities in which we work are more concerned with infant malnutrition and the risk that excrement will seep into the water table and end up in their dinner table glasses. The fact that I am contributing to strong, tangible, sustainable improvements in the health of my community allows me to swallow my rainbow flag — at times, gladly so — and even laugh when told that I’ll end up marrying a Peruana and staying here forever.

My fellow volunteers are as invaluable as the Starbucks Via packets and Girl Scout cookies my family sends me from back home. I text or call them daily and spend time with them whenever possible. With them, I feel free to discuss my sexual frustrations, the gorgeous Latin American fútbol players on TV, and the dire need for anti-bleaching laws to preserve Peruvian jeans.

I’ve heard a story about one volunteer who left partly because they felt it would be impossible to develop close relationships with locals in their community without discussing their sexual orientation. I disagree that it is impossible, but I do appreciate the difference between relationships in which this crucial information is shared and those in which it is not.

Back home, the relationship between my brother and me improved drastically after I told him I was gay, but it was not without any value before that. Similarly, relationships I am developing in my Peruvian community are meaningful despite my invisibility as a gay man.

You will be inundated with machismo and be expected to live up to hyper-masculine standards.

One day, my host family was talking about a man, who had drunkenly stumbled into a store, who they apparently felt was acting very effeminate. Trying to understand what they were referring to, I asked for details, and my host mom responded with what roughly translates as “he was acting as though he played for the other team.”

Got it.

My host dad then said that they call such people “macho menos” which is a play on the phrase “más o menos,” or “more or less” in English.

This was the only time my host parents have ever referred to homosexuality, and from their remarks I gleaned that they believe for one to be gay, one must also be less of a man.

Every member of my host family is as kind as my favorite people back in the US, and it pains me to hear them express something so offensive to me without knowing the hurt they are causing.

Machismo is a deplorable part of Peruvian culture, something that is challenged constantly in the press, media, schools, and through social programs. Sadly, I suspect that the impact of machismo on attitudes toward homosexuality will be the last vestige of it to disappear since it is the one least addressed openly. I can deal with a five-year-old friend I’ve met in the community saying my boat shoes are for girls, but it’s a lot harder to absorb in silence more potent stabs at my sense of self.

Thankfully, machismo has not been forced on me as a standard of manliness in my day-to-day life here. I’ve been able to cook, help my host mom with the dishes, run in really brief running shorts, and dance in skinny jeans without any insults, aside from being called “flaquito,” or too skinny. If I were known as a gay man here, I’m betting folks would have much more to say on the subject of my machismo.

For all my preparations and the helpful feedback I got, no one could have fully and adequately prepared me for the community where I live. Volunteers are told of their placements only two to three weeks before we move to them permanently. But even with more time to investigate Peru, I couldn’t have anticipated how I would feel once I was living here.

Peace Corps staff have supported me through the early stages of my volunteer service. My silence about my sexual orientation has not always been a comfortable choice, and I’ll feel lucky if the occasional lie about not having a girlfriend anymore is the worst way I deny my identity. I can’t say for sure what the future holds, but with the support I’ve found among my fellow volunteers and the affection I feel for my host family, I feel reasonably well armed for my next year and a half as a reluctantly born-again closeted gay man.

You can follow Tymon Manning’s experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru at timeinperu.tumblr.com.


What it’s like to serve as a queer Volunteer – in Nicaragua

– Charleen Johnson Stoever, Current PCV

 Editor’s Note: This story first appeared on Peace Corps Passport. It is reposted here with the authorization of the Peace Corps Passport staff. You can read more stories from current volunteers at http://passport.peacecorps.gov

volunteeringwhilequeer“I don’t want to go to Nicaragua,” I grumbled to my mom as I sat in the passenger’s seat, wrinkling my nose. She had just asked me if I was excited about my new Peace Corps assignment. I still wasn’t sure if I would actually go, but I said yes, for the moment. It was around New Year’s Eve 2013, the end of a taxing year for both of us. It could only go uphill from here, I reminded myself.

We were driving our rental car through the surprisingly chilly New Mexican desert, a place that reminded me of Central Washington (where I grew up) because of its barren, beige-colored earth and open spaces. One thing was strikingly different: the cold, vast, cloudless, bright blue sky.

“Why don’t you want to go?” asked my mom.

“I just don’t know anything about it. It’s a conservative, Catholic country. I’m used to having all of my queer friends in Boston and not being afraid of hiding who I am. I won’t have that in Nicaragua. I’ll probably have to grow my hair out so that people don’t ask why I have short hair and everything. I won’t be able to be myself there. It’s taken me so long to realize where I belong. Not every place is as liberal as Boston.”

Concerned friends – who had never been to Nicaragua – warned me that I wouldn’t be able to be myself there and that I should make the safer choice to stay in Boston. I grew up in a Mexican household, and I was never comfortable enough to come out to my mom until college. She was fine with it when I told her, but I wasn’t comfortable to do so until I had met other queer people like myself. When you finally meet other people who understand you and where you’re coming from, you become more comfortable with yourself.

Hearing my queer friends’ successes and struggles with coming out to their friends and family inspired me to be more open about myself. In college, I not only met other queer women and transgender students, but most importantly to me, queer Latin@s. Leaving for Nicaragua meant losing the small network of queer Latin@s that took me so long to find, something I feared.

After six months in-country, I can safely say that Nicaragua has been amazing, to say the least. I feel as if I’m in the right place at exactly the right time in my life. When I Skype with my mom and friends back home, they can’t help but comment on how relaxed I look and feel. “Man, and I thought you liked Boston but look at you now!” my friend said last night during a Skype date.

I told her that being here has made me realize how happy I am while I’m living abroad. I love waking up every day and facing the challenges and successes that come with navigating a different culture. I love that each day there is something to learn, whether it’s learning to incorporate filler words like “Fijese de que…” or learning the proper way to write a cover letter in Spanish (hint: at the end, it is wise to say, “I wish you success in all of your daily activities” rather than the more American, “Thank you for your consideration”).

In response to my previous concern that Nicaraguans would be a conservative, unwelcoming lot: false, false and false! While this is a highly religious country, Nicaraguans are some of the most generous, friendly people I have met. I’ve become used to the two typical questions I get asked: “Are you married?” and “Are you Catholic?” My response: no and yes.

I am lucky to live in a large, relatively progressive city in the mountains, so dealing with homophobia and other –isms isn’t something I worry about as much as I would in a smaller community. There are lots of NGOs, women’s collectives, queer Latin@s and social justice work going on. I feel at home here because there’s a strong sense of people helping one another out, regardless of what they have.

As a TEFL teacher trainer, my job is to co-teach high school English classes with Nicaraguan teachers. I also lead teaching workshops to other Peace Corps Volunteers and staff, and teach English classes for teachers and community members. I’ve had plenty of time to integrate into my community, cook chilaquiles, teach English, eat pastel cuatro leches and go hiking. I’m looking forward to working with Fundación Uno, which sponsors weekend English classes for Nicaraguan English teachers. Doing these trainings will be a top priority for me, since my goal is to empower Nicaraguan English teachers. They will be the ones who will stay when and if I ever leave.

I can’t imagine being anywhere else at the moment, and am looking forward to overcoming life’s obstacles with more patience and optimism than ever. I’ve been lucky enough to find my queer Latin@ community in Nicaragua, and am grateful every day for it. For now, I don’t want to leave Nicaragua.

charstoeverCharleen Johnson Stoever is a 24-year-old Mexican American queer woman who is serving as a TEFL Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua (2014-16). She earned a B.A. in French and Women’s Studies at Wellesley College. She believes in the power of education as a tool for social mobility. 

Uganda Comes to Albany – a Book Review

– Mike Learned, RPCV, Malawi

 Dick Lipez is a RPCV, Ethiopia, former DC Peace Corps staff, longtime journalist and editorial writer, and keen observer of the political, social, and human rights issues that affect LGBT people around the world. He has just 41FtLSQy1gL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_published the fourteenth mystery in his Donald Strachey series, Why Stop at Vengeance. His first, On the Other Hand, Death, was published 34 years ago. His protagonist/hero Strachey is an Albany, NY private eye in a longtime relationship with Timothy Callahan, who had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in India prior to their relationship. Peace Corps values, experiences, insights crop up in almost all the books in the series. Timothy offers good advice and asks incisive often challenging questions. He’s that voice in the back of Strachey’s head keeping him on the proper path.

Lipez, writing as Richard Stevenson, actually Dick’s first and middle names has had his finger on the wide range of critical issues facing his LGBT brothers and sisters for the last three decades. Dick reflects these in his own life with his husband Joe, and Strachey and Tim have taken it all on,

This latest volume tackles the rabid homophobia that many Peace Corps Volunteers, straight and gay, face in many, many countries throughout Africa. In this case the setting is in Uganda, a country where 154 PCVs currently serve; 1405 volunteers since 1964. Strachey is contacted by a gay Ugandan refugee in Albany who wants vengeance against a conservative American minister who has preached the demonization of LGBT people in Uganda, and is involved in questionable transactions with corrupt Ugandan politicians who support the vile homophobic laws and agendas. The corrupt politicians, the manipulative American ministers, DC lobbyists; all have their hands in the till.

One of  Lipez’s (Stevenson’s) strengths as a writer is his wide read understanding of  what is behind so many of the human rights struggles in much of  developing world, much of it the developing world where PCVs serve. Although Lipez (Stevenson) in an Author’s Note says that although fiction, but the involvement of American missionaries and other clergy in anti-gay crusades in Africa and Eastern Europe is all too real.

Much of the books description of  the  raw, violent homophobic rhetoric of Ugandan politicians can be difficult to read, but it’s exactly what has been promulgated in that beautiful East African country in recent years. Lipez (Stevenson) rightly ties this rhetoric to the corrupt, long lasting political and social elites who want to keep hold of political and economic power in some of the world’s poorest countries. They sell homophobia as an answer to the problems of the people they should be serving rather than exploiting. PCVs who have served in Africa and other developing countries often despair of what has happened in countries in which we worked and truly loved. Why Stop at Vengeance tells us this story again.

During the course of the novel Don and Tim suffer some similar fates of LGBT people in Uganda including arson and intimidation.  But true to form Don and Tim come through another adventure in Albany. May they continue to live the challenges and celebrations of our times.

Lipez (Stevenson) recommends the ironically titled 2014 documentary film, God Loves Uganda

Might I also add the documentary Call Me Kuchu, which highlights the life and death of Ugandan LGBT activist, David Kato.

Print and Kindle editions of Why Stop at Vengeance, MLR Press, are available on Amazon

The author, Dick Lipez, can be contacted at poshmeadow1@aol.com

A Night in the Chadian Rainforest

– Michael Varga, RPCV, Chad

Editor’s Note:

This is an excerpt from Under Chad’s Spell, a novel by Michael Varga, based on his experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chad. 726 PCVs served in Chad over several years in four different segments. Peace Corps is no longer active in Chad because of security issues. PCVs now serve in other African countries in west and central Africa and no doubt could have experiences like the ones described here. Madison the character mentioned here is a Peace Corps Volunteer.

About a month earlier, Madison made one of his rare visits to Medina’s hut.  She lived with another woman who had similarly muddled her standing among Chadians in crossing the color line with a French soldier.  Medina invited Madison to come and have dinner with her and this other woman and their numerous children, brothers, cousins and other hangers-on who lived in the nearby huts.  It was a big event for them to entertain the nasara, and just about anybody who even had a passing acquaintance with Medina or the other woman had shown up to eat, but more importantly, to watch and perhaps talk to the nasara.

Madison was startled to see how many people had gathered to eat with him.  The two chickens that had been killed for the meal would barely allow a sliver for each person, but Medina pulled some large pieces of the chickens from their bones and put them in front of Madison.  After all, he was the guest of honor.  As was the Chadian custom, all the men sat together while the women served.  If there was anything left from the men, the women and children would share that afterwards, removed from the men.

The men kept asking Madison about the unrest in the capital.  Rumors continued to fly that a coup was imminent, that Muammar Khadafi, Libya’s leader, was intent on making all of Chad part of Libya.  They were vehement in denouncing Libyans, although not one admitted that he had ever met one.  Madison jokingly asked how they would recognize a Libyan, and the men sat in silence, evidently not finding any humor in such a challenge.

After the men ate, someone put a radio on and they started pressing Madison to dance.  As the women and children nibbled on the leftovers, Madison called Medina over, and as they started to move rhythmically to the static-filled sounds from the radio, other men grabbed other women and soon the hut was surrounded by bodies swaying to the beat.  There were many more men than women so a number of the men danced together or danced alone.

As the night wore on and the beer ran out, Madison grew a bit uncomfortable with sitting in the presence of all of these Chadians, staring at him.  They had covered the topics they could discuss, so no more words were being exchanged.  They had danced to more than a dozen songs.  The food had long ago run out (long before the beer), and Madison felt he could graciously take his leave.  He shook the hand of every person present.  Medina said she would accompany him.  Madison told her he was sure she was tired from all the cooking and preparations and it was better if he went home alone.

Medina’s hut was only a couple of kilometers from Madison’s house and Madison had walked the paths several times in daylight, including earlier this evening.  But this was the first time Madison tried to find his way home at night and, unfortunately, there was no moon.  The night was a black sheet, broken only by the dim beam of his flashlight.  Strange whining animal calls and falling branches seemed to be always just behind Madison as he stepped forward.  He gripped the flashlight, pointing it in a wide arc as the path twisted and turned.  He tripped on a branch that had fallen across the path and grew more unsure whether he was heading in the right direction.  Where was his Virgil to lead him into the clear?

He circled the pathways for a half hour, passing clusters of huts that he thought looked familiar, but when he spied a person smoking some tobacco before one hut, then a woman cleaning pots next to a fire, he realized he’d been mistaken and these were not the huts he thought they were.  He was lost.

He considered retracing his steps to find Medina’s hut, but he wasn’t sure he could even do that.  He heard a boy’s voice calling out “Petrol! Petrol!”  He waited for the boy to come closer, thinking he might know Medina and be able to lead him to her hut.  He turned the flashlight beam on his own face so that the boy would see him.  But when the boy saw him, evidently shocked at seeing his white face lit up in the black night, he cried “Kaii!  Nasara!  Kaii!”  In fear, he ran in the other direction, spilling the kerosene as he fled.

Madison decided he had to be methodical in finding his way back to Medina’s hut.  He turned around and started heading back in the direction from which he had just come.  He wasn’t certain he was making the right move, but as he walked, he thought things looked a bit more familiar.

“Monsieur Madison?”

He shined the flashlight toward the sound and saw the face of a young man he didn’t recognize.  For a second, he thought it might be one of his students, but despite the size of his classes, he knew every student’s face and he did not recognize this one.  Yet there was something familiar about it.

“Who are you?”  Madison asked in French.

“Medina’s brother, Bousang.  Are you lost?”

Madison was loath to admit that he was, but he knew there was no point in pretending he could find his way home on his own.

“I am.  Do you know how to get to my house?”

“Walk this way.”

Bousang turned and led Madison back up the narrow path. The thick ropy vegetation limited the path to the width of just one person.  After about fifteen minutes of walking in silence through the darkness, the path widened as they neared the center of Baibokoum.  Madison walked next to Bousang. He took his hand.  Madison had grown at ease over these months with the Chadian custom of men walking together, their hands loosely touching in a slight grasp of each other’s fingers.  There was nothing more than friendliness implied in two men walking with their hands touching.  A man and a woman would never touch each other in public, whether they were married or not, but two men or two women would always have some physical link to the other person if they were friends.  It was the Chadian way.

Bousang’s hands were rough from working in the cotton fields around Baibokoum.  Madison asked him how he spent his time.  He told him he worked the fields, but he had been to school and had hopes of returning.  His French was good and that impressed Madison.  Bousang couldn’t have been more than twenty years old, and Madison realized now that he had talked briefly with Bousang earlier in the evening at Medina’s.  He was the one who had asked about African-Americans, how they managed in America and whether they ever thought about coming back to live in Africa.  Madison answered that slavery had been a crime and that the younger generations of African-Americans he knew were too far removed from life in Africa to want to return.

When they got to Madison’s house, he turned off the flashlight.  As they stood side by side in the darkness, Madison thanked Bousang for helping him, asked him if he wanted a drink of water or a Fanta before he headed back home.  Without answering Madison, Bousang let go of his hand.  In the darkness, Madison could sense Bousang was moving closer to him.

Under Chad’s Spell is available at Amazon.com in Kindle and paperback editions. Michael Varga can be contacted through his website www.michaelvarga.com


Peace Corps Program, Not Jordanian Hospitality, Temporarily Suspended

– Sarah Bender, RPCV

I tend to enjoy watching people’s eyes grow wide when I share with them I served in the Peace Corps in Jordan (not every lesbian’s top choice for a stint abroad). Their surprise always grows when I then express my extreme gratitude for my placement, as I met my now fiancé during Pre-Service Training.

The “temporary closing” of Jordan’s program was devastating to Steph and me. Peace Corps has had a profound effect on both of our lives (in addition to introducing us). In the four years since our COS (Completion of Service0, not a day passes in which I do not remember some aspect of my service, or use a skill I was able to develop while living in Jordan. I am the definition of a “proud RPCV:” my fiancé and I have marched with Peace Corps in local PRIDE celebrations, attended recruiting events, and I even have a 24×36 Peace Corps poster hanging in my office. In reflecting on the program, my experience there, and the temporary suspension, I think of the Peace Corps Jordan staff members who are left in the lurch, of my Jordanian friends and family whose lives do not get a “temporary suspension” from the uncertainty of daily life, and of my increasing desire to book a trip home to Jordan.

Stephanie and I have wanted to return to Jordan since about the moment we set foot back on American soil. We both developed extremely close relationships with families in our communities, and had close friends who live in the capital. We had not yet set up our life together in the U.S., but had done so in Jordan – why would we not want to return? Over the years that followed our COS, however, we struggled with reconciling our desire to visit with our growing discomfort around potentially having to re-closet ourselves. Steph and my relationship continued to progress unbeknownst to our Jordanian families, as we found ourselves ducking and deflecting questions from our counterparts – sometimes forsaking calls altogether so as to avoid the white lies and non-truths we felt (with panic) threatened the authenticity of connections to our friends and family abroad. To our conflicted disappointment, four years have passed without our promised visit.

In the months since our engagement, however, we have begun to discover that perhaps our fears had been misplaced. Since we first began our service, both of our social media sites have been on “privacy lockdown,” so that any photos showing our same-sex love, or other potentially “culturally inappropriate” behavior would not impede our ability to integrate into our communities. After COS, as we settled into our new life together in the States, we were ever so cautious about photos, news articles, or anything posted on to social media that would “out” us. Several years later, however, as we were celebrating our engagement, we boldly decided to share our news with everyone – privacy settings aside.

Several days after our announcement, Steph and I received a message from her community counterpart and good friend in Jordan. Looking at the inbox, without opening the message, we were immediately engulfed in anxiety and regret for sharing our news so publicly. As we read the message with trepidation an intentional day or two later, though, our worries eased with every line. The message was congratulatory, loving, and supportive of our relationship. For all our anguish, we realized that the human-to-human connections we made in Jordan surpassed even the most striking of cultural differences, a testament to the power and integrity of what the Peace Corps eschews.

I am confident that my fiancé and I will return to Jordan (perhaps for a second wedding celebration?) and just as confident that Peace Corps will return as well. I had long hoped that Jordan would be one of the pioneer countries placing same-sex couples, and I still see that in the program’s future. The suspension of the program is disappointing for many reasons, one of which being that Americans serving in Jordan have the unique experience of being able to come home and share positive stories of hospitality from a region so frequently and incorrectly viewed as violent and terror-ridden in our society. For now, I can only call upon all of my fellow RPCVs from Jordan to continue to share these stories – more frequently and honestly than we had before.

Sarah Bender can be contacted at sarah.bender42@gmail.com


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