Talking to international German exchange student Jonas Bielmeier, who is currently one of three international students, in Durban during the lockdown. He shares his thoughts on why he voluntarily chose to stay in Durban despite having a choice to go back to his country.
The 23-year-old, who is currently doing his Bachelor Studies in Tourism Management at the University of Applied Sciences in Munich, said that he was given the opportunity to study at a university abroad as the Faculty of Tourism in Munich has a great network of cooperating universities offering study places for exchange students.
“South Africa has interested me for a long time. Seeing pictures of safaris as a child, studying its history in school and hearing about its open and hospitable culture awakened my desire to experience the country. In this sense, a semester abroad is an extraordinary opportunity, giving you the chance to learn a new culture, rather than experiencing it as an outside tourist,” he said.
He further stressed that Durban offered the perfect combination of culture, weather and beach life. “I enjoy surfing a lot and I heard it was South Africa’s main surf city, and that the Durban University of Technology (DUT) offers a course in Tourism Management which completed my decision to come here,” he said.
Bielmeier said that before coming to the DUT, it was nice to have the freedom of choice of enrolling in subjects they don’t have back home.
“The process of getting the study visa for South Africa was probably the most difficult step to come through. A big thanks goes to the international offices of both universities at this point. They were always helpful and quick in responding,” said Bielmeier.
He arrived in South Africa on 27 January 2020. “I think the first case of the coronavirus in Germany was diagnosed a day after, on 28 January 2020. During the first month after the first case, the infection rate was quite low, with the exponential curve kicking in at the beginning of March 2020. But that was at a time when I had already spent a month in Durban,” he said.
He further added that he also only read about the pandemic situation in the German newspapers and heard from family and friends, how badly the situation in and around Germany was evolving. At that time, he hoped it would not arrive in South Africa.
Bielmeier explains how he is managing without his loved ones. “I know the feeling of missing home and my family and friends from other long-term travels. It certainly isn’t easy, but it is a lot easier with WhatsApp and Skype,” he stressed.
He also feels like the other international students are feeling the same way. When they came here, they knew, they would not see their loved ones for at least six months. “A big plus is that we are all in the same situation, so we can help each other. It is important to share your feelings when you live in such a small room, for such a long time,” said Bielmeier. He spoke on his thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic, and how he manages to pass the day and how it has impacted on him on a psychological level.
“At the beginning of the lockdown, it was first about understanding what is happening here and what this means for us and everyone else. Once we understood this, we started to look for things that would bring us long-term balance and keep our mind and body fit. In the beginning, we pretty much failed. We had our activities, but our day would be completely messed up. Now, after a couple of weeks, we have a lot of opportunities around the house. One of my flatmates started writing his bachelor thesis. I am studying Spanish and IsiZulu and my other flatmate is working with his electrical engineering kit. We play a lot of chess, in between we do a lot of workouts during the day. I think I have done more workouts in the past month than the last year,” he chuckled.
He also added that he and his flatmates also try new things. “One of his flatmates is a Muslim and is fasting at the moment. The other two of us decided to join since it is a good time to reflect and challenge yourself. Overall, this is our perspective on the lockdown. It also helps to know that we don’t have to go through it alone,” he said.
Bielmeier spoke further on his plans, especially once the official announcement of what the way forward is with regards to DUT, in time to come.
“That is sort of the dream happening. I guess, when DUT reopens, the nationwide lockdown will be eased too. We still have the responsibility to appreciate the opportunities we are given. The curriculum of DUT is just that. It is a luxury to study in a foreign country. I am also really excited to see all my friends from the classes again and catch up with them,” he said jubilantly.
Pictured: German exchange student Jonas Bielmeier.