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Gap Year Volunteer's Warm Welcome in Borneo

George Heppel with local villagers on his gap year in Borneo with The LeapI had a dilemma during my A levels earlier this year. My previous plans which would have filled up the entire summer were cancelled unexpectedly and I had 2 months free with nothing to keep me busy before university. Being in the middle of revision and A levels, I didn't have the time to plan a massive trip, although I did know where I wanted to go - South East Asia. This is when I heard about The Leap through a friend, an organisation which allows gap year students to do volunteering placements all around the world. My parents loved The Leap because it apparently had the reputation of being one of the safest gap year travel companies. I loved The Leap because I managed to have a fantastic time travelling without all the trouble of finding placements, flights, accommodation the endless tasks which come with travelling alone. What's more, I would be travelling with a group of people my age.

I had a few ideas of what to expect from my time in Borneo - National George Heppel with his class on his gap year teaching assignment in Borneo with The LeapGeographic magazines had already conjured images in my head of steamy rainforests, indigenous villages and gorgeous beaches, as well as what I had seen and heard from the Leap regarding the work I would be doing - building a primary school, teaching English and rainforest conservation. What I experienced was all that and more.

No matter what placement I was doing, the locals welcomed us as if we had lived there our whole lives. People from the villages would regularly come up to us to practise their English, but more often just to say hello and see how we were. I spent many nights during my time in Borneo drinking the local rice wine with the locals, and Karaoke was the local pass-time - though in my case, rice wine and Karaoke didn't mix! It wasn't all work! We spent our time between placements (and incidentally for me, my 18th birthday) in the thriving city of Kota Kinabalu which was filled with brilliant nightlife. During my time in Borneo I also managed to do 5 days trekking in the infamous Sabah rainforests, go diving in a tank filled with sharks, turtles and sting rays and come face to face with orang-utans.

I came home knowing I'd done something worthwhile, as well as making some fantastic new friends. I could go on forever about my time in Borneo - and I do, to friends who have heard the stories a million times before anyway - but put brilliantly by one particularly drunk village chief one night, "You volunteers help the community every step of the way - you help us make rice wine, benefiting the community; you buy the rice wine, helping local businesses; you drink it with the locals, helping us with our English; and lastly, when you've had too much you vomit in the biogas chamber, providing power for the village!". I would urge anyone going travelling solo for the first time, or just with a few months spare, to experience Borneo.

George Heppel, went to Borneo with The Leap July 2010