Nowhere Man – Airão Velho

Custom house – Airão Velho

After leaving the clapping ants and grottoes of the Hamburger Rock area, we travel farther upriver to meet ”o Japa”, Nakayama. For the last couple of days, we had heard about “the Japanese”, “the hermit of the forest” and “Nakayama”of Airão Velho. This small town, now a ghost forest (not even a town), has a rich history of early discovery (17th century), great boom in the rubber heyday and then a great bust. There are even legends about the town such as ants eating all the residents, leaving only buildings.  I can give only my experience of the place, but I highly recommend the excellent piece by Simon Romero in the New York Times–Nakayama himself treasures the article which he keeps in the “museum”of his house.

Arrival at Nakayama’s place has a steep climb up a scruffy bank, to be greeted by random foreigners in hammocks (a European film crew was hanging out there for a few days) and also a cat and a dog who were very very fond of each other. Very. And then Nakayama, a quiet diminutive man in oversized shorts.

Airão Velho is not on the map, but lies above Sobrado near Novo Airão

Nakayama lives in a dirt-floored house, with a part-time generator to watch Flamengo soccer games and not much else. One front room houses the museum including treasures of broken pottery and bones found around the forest. A faded map shows our location, old black and white photos show his early days and that of his family. But now, except for the (apparently frequent) film crews, Nakayama is alone. He eats the fruits of the jungle, catches rodents and fish for food. We gave him the leftovers of our lunch–he is so skinny, and he’s almost 70 years old.

Trees and vines take back the town.

My kids were clearly uncomfortable in the surroundings. We toured around a bit with Nakayama but they were somehow as unknowingly hit by the ghosts as I was. If you have ever visited Bodie, an American West ghost town, you will know the feeling. You can almost hear the people talking from the past, you step on cobblestones that felt the weight of a thousand souls, you wonder at the buildings, a beautiful custom house simply abandoned to nature. And nature fiercely taking over…trees and vines stretching up and through every crevice.

My kids watch Nakayama slice the rubber tree

DSCN1813Nakayama took his machete and cut a seringuera or rubber tree so we could see how the sap would run down. As taken as I was by the ghosts, it felt to me like crying. The tree crying, the town crying. I too was ready to go sooner rather than later in spite of the beauty of the place. What will happen to it when Nakayama dies or becomes incapacitated? To the forest it returns.

It all reminds me of a sad song by the Beatles:


Nowhere Man

He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

Doesn’t have a point of view
Knows not where he’s going to
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere man please listen
You don’t know what you’re missing
Nowhere man, The world is at your command



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