It sounded like a rat at first. A cooking pot beside my bed scraped across the floor then a bottle of coke toppled over. It was 4am. I didn’t know this until the thief had gone. He shot out of the room and jumped off the 5 metre-high balcony before I’d barely thrown the mosquito net out of the way to  pursue him. For a brief moment I watched this dark figure run through the  sandy street below, my cries of “THIEF, THIEF” lost in the night.

When I turned the light on I realised my wallet had gone.  It had been right beside the bed, inches away from my head. Cash (fortunately not much),  and credit card had now disappeared into the streets of St Louis.

Having had my compact camera stolen the day before, this came as a double blow. “Make sure you tie your bicycle chain around your ankle”. Those words of advice given to me a week before in Mauritania were now coming back to haunt me.

The theft of the compact camera could be attributed to carelessness. It was visible within a zipped mesh pocket of my day-pack whilst out walking. The wallet however was right beside my head in a room on the second floor of a hostel. The door to the balcony outside had been left open to keep the room cool. Perhaps this was careless too?

C’est bizarre, c’est bizarre, muttered the hotel proprietor the next morning. We were standing on the terrace of the hostel and looking down to the balcony and adjoining buildings. How the thief had reached the balcony remained a mystery.

He might have been one of the three prisoners I later saw in the police station. They were sat behind bars in the entrance way and had been caught the night before. Two were sleeping, or at least pretending to sleep on the stone floor, and the other was watching TV.

Chelsea were about to kick-off against Manchester City. The TV was resting on the front desk next to an expressionless face who sat in command of a large registry book. He too was interested in the football, although his attention was distracted by a fat woman. She was lying on the floor having just fainted. Moments before she had been yelling at one of the prisoners. I guessed she was  his mother.

I’d come to make a declaration, for no other purpose than to receive some documentation for an insurance claim. Another officer turned his attention away from the TV and asked me to identify the thief. It was too difficult to say for sure. They looked pretty much alike – black, shaven-headed, torn jeans  t-shirts.

My GSCE level French didn’t help. “J’ai mon portefeuille volés la nuit dernière”. “J’ai besoin d’une déclaration de ma compagnie d’assurance”. Conversation went back and forth between hotel proprietor and various officers. I listened, waited, looked at the prisoners again, checked the football score.

An hour or so later I was led into another room in a separate building. A dusty PC was resting upon  an old wooden desk, along with several stacks of paper. It wasn’t until I sat down that I noticed my wallet was also on the desk.  I picked it up and opened it. Empty. No surprise there.

Come back on Monday, explained the officer after typing in the declaration.  It now needed the Commissioner’s stamp. I decided to ignore the fact that my name had been spelt incorrectly.

It’s Monday as I write this now and I have my declaration, handed over with the cautionary words “Vous devez être vigilant“. I couldn’t agree more. After a week here in St Louis I can think of no better escape than the open road.

Room in St Louis