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You never want to wake up to a plane full of screaming people

Iain Marlow/The Globe and Mail

Sometimes things don't go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.

When the plane flying me from Lagos, Nigeria, started lurching around 3 a.m., I awoke and heard – for the first time in my life – the horrifying sound of people fervently praying for their lives.

For the second time in my life, I thought I was going to die.

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But instead of clinging to the roots of a small sapling near Banff and watching scree dislodged by my shoes tumble down a mountainside, I was stuck in the middle aisle of an old United Airlines jet bound for Texas. Being woken up sucks at the best of times, but being woken by hundreds of screaming Nigerians who think they're going to die, and then thinking you are also about to die, really takes the biscuit.

I was returning from a foreign assignment for The Globe and Mail and was relieved to have made it safely onto the plane at all. People tell you horrifying things when you say you're going to Nigeria. One consultant to the oil industry – in which people get kidnapped all the time – was aghast I wasn't organizing an armed convoy to escort me from the airport. But I had actually enjoyed Lagos: the exuberant people and the city's sheer hustle. Sure, upon landing a week-and-a-half earlier I was shaken down for a bribe, and almost mugged after being rowed around a floating slum in a wooden canoe, but both incidents were basically my fault. After everything, it seemed weird that leaving Lagos proved to be the most terrifying.

I've experienced coffee-flying-all-over-the-place turbulence before, on planes smaller than this massive transatlantic jet, but this was truly something else. We had curved up from Nigeria and flown clear of the West African coast, where many hurricanes start above the warm ocean water. It was a night flight, so passengers were asleep when it started. I awoke in the middle of a lurch that felt like the worst turbulence could possibly get without the wings snapping off.

It was dark in the cabin, and as I took out my foam earplugs I was enveloped by scream-prayers split pretty evenly – as Nigeria is – between Christian and Muslim: "Oh God, please save us!" "Jesus, please!" "Oh Allah, save us!" "Oh Allah, don't let us die!"

Then it hit again – that terrifying dropping feeling – and the screaming got worse. We were in roughly the same air space, as I was later told by a flight attendant, where an Air France flight dropped from the sky in 2009, killing all 228 onboard.

There were several more minutes of top-of-the-rollercoaster drops, and more shaking, and more screaming – and then everything settled. The plane was still dark, whirring with cold, stale air. No flight attendants appeared. No one got up. It was silent. I sat there sweating, with surprisingly few profound thoughts about mortality. There were slight rumbles for the rest of the flight; each minor bump had me clenching the arm rests, a habit that has followed me like some tropical illness; now, even the most milquetoast turbulence leaves me sweating, even though I've lost the fear. When the Lagos-to-Houston flight landed in Texas, the plane burst into applause and more prayers. And I got right on another flight.

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Note: The name of the airline has been corrected in the online version of this article.

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