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  • Nia Alexander Campbell

Turning 21! (7,000 Miles Away in a Foreign Country with No Alcohol)

What You’ll Find in This Post:

  • What it was like not being with family & friends

  • Turning 21 “without” alcohol

  • What I did for my birthday and how it turned out


A tired me with my birthday mini cake.

When I left for Qatar, there were a lot of things on my mind, including the fact my 21st birthday was just two weeks away. Yep, I would be turning 21 not only in a foreign country, but a country I had never been to, a country where alcohol was illegal, and a country without any of my family or American friends.

Further still, my birthday fell on a Friday, which is like America’s Saturday (as in to say, Friday is not part of the standard work week). It also unofficially lasted about 32 hours, since even after my birthday was over in Doha, it was still my birthday in the U.S. (due to the 8-hour time difference). To add, for the first time I’d be able to spend my mid-winter birthday in 70° F (21° C) weather.

My point is that many of the stars were aligning, giving me ample options and opportunity to celebrate my birthday in a memorable way.

So how did my birthday go? I’ll give you the rundown.

What was it like not being with family & friends?

Just me, Bruno, and a Sandisk MP3 player from 2010.

I was 7,000 miles away from home, after all.

I hadn’t spent my birthday with a group of friends since my grandiose Sweet 16, so the prospect of not spending my 21st with buds didn’t faze me much. This was my first birthday not spent with my family, however, and I was definitely curious to see how the day would turn out without any of them.

Despite some of my family initially voicing concern over the prospect of me turning 21 so far away, in the end it was fine. They made Facebook birthday posts, sent birthday texts with lots of emojis, and I felt the love from 7,000 miles away. I also realized this would probably be the first of many birthdays not spent with my family—a part of the whole “growing up” thing—and coming to terms with that was easier than anticipated.

I did ultimately end up going out with some friends, though; two of them I had met on a school trip in Morocco the year prior (and it just so happened they still lived in Doha the semester I was there), and my other guests were two of the other exchange students.

I also spent time with myself, which sounds unavoidable, but it counts. I wore my favorite skirt, I listened to Bruno Mars, I walked to the mini mart to buy my favorite snacks, I drank a fake beer, I took some selfies, I tried something new with my hair, and I ate at a tuna sandwich with extra mayo . . . I put some additional time and energy into myself for my birthday, and it contributed to the day in a simple, positive way.

Birthday outfit. Nothing too fancy.

What about turning 21 without alcohol?

A blurry picture of me laughing with my the sangria I barely touched.

Well, first of all, even though alcohol is illegal in the country, it’s not illegal illegal. You can still get to it, you just have to go to a bar or club (or get a permit from your employer, then drive out to the desert to buy some booze, but that’s a different story). My point is that I did have access to alcohol, but I didn’t really want it.

Originally, all I wanted was an ice cream cake and some friends to eat it with, but the ice cream cakes I found were out of my price range and, frankly, I didn’t have enough friends to finish off a whole cake . . . I had only been in the country for two weeks and I didn’t want any leftovers haunting my freezer until May. Then I downsized to a mini Blizzard from Dairy Queen, some curly fries from Hardees, and a fake beer: Two of my favorites combined with something new and ironic.

Mood peach & pineapple non-alcoholic beers.

I got the fake beer (which tasted like mildly carbonated juice and got flat insanely fast), but the rest of my birthday request was unfortunately a no go. Instead, my friend offered to take me out! She ended up forgetting about the offer—but then she remembered again!—and I invited three others to join us, the only other 20-somethings I knew in the entire country. I thought we were headed to some manner of park, but turns out the plan was to go to Belgian Cafe at the InterContinental Doha (a five star hotel).

Belgian was stuck somewhere between a bar and a café, but in a good way. It had live music, a DJ, indoor & outdoor seating (with heating lamps), drinks, meals, desserts, and light snacks. It was a nice atmosphere, and it was my first time experiencing a bar in Doha, but here’s the thing: I don’t really drink. I will try anything, but you can bet your buttons whatever beer, liquor, or wine that comes my way will get three sips, then I’m done. Further still, I didn’t know we were going to a bar, so I wasn’t able to prepare even if I had wanted to drink; I hadn’t eaten a decent meal beforehand, I was far from hydrated, and I didn’t have much money to spend on alcohol anyway.

The whole “I’m 21, let’s drink!” vibe just wasn’t my vibe.

So, that in mind, how was my birthday?

My raspberry chocolate mousse birthday mini cake.

Hilariously, I didn't even get carded.

Even though spending my birthday at a bar wasn’t my thing, it was still enjoyable because it was a new experience. I bought a peach sangria (the cheapest and gentlest drink on the menu), my friend took a “woo, you’re 21!” video of me sipping it, I gave the rest of it to one of the exchange students, three of my guests took tequila shots in my honor, I ordered some steak fries with curry mayonnaise, the DJ announced my birthday, and my friend surprised me with a teeny tiny cake. My name was even written in on the plate in chocolate, and that was a really sweet moment.

So, how was the day? Well, here’s the thing: For one reason or another, the older I get, the less inspired I am to celebrate my birthday. However, the prospect of turning 21 in Doha—or overseas in general—was such a unique, literally once-in-a-lifetime experience that I welcomed the idea of doing, well, anything. I treated myself to some familiar things, I did some new things, I spent time with friends, and it wound up being a memorable experience.


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