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article imageSalvadoran castaway gets emotional welcome home

By Laurent Thomet (AFP)     Feb 11, 2014 in World

The Salvadoran castaway who says he spent 13 months adrift in the Pacific arrived home Tuesday to the warm embrace of a family that thought him dead.

Jose Salvador Alvarenga traveled across the ocean by plane this time, two weeks after the fisherman washed ashore in the Marshall Islands, telling the world he had floated for 12,500 kilometers (8,000 miles) in a small boat.

Sporting a new haircut and clean shaven, the 37-year-old was checked by doctors at each leg of his return trip due to health concerns.

Alvarenga, who left El Salvador more than a decade ago, was living on Mexico's southern coast when he says he went on an ill-fated shark fishing trip in late 2012 with a companion who later died.

Maria Julia Alvarenga  mother of castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga  prepares to receive him at her ho...
Maria Julia Alvarenga, mother of castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga, prepares to receive him at her house in Garita Palmera, 118 km west of San Salvador on February 11, 2014
Jose Cabezas, AFP

While lost in the high seas, Alvarenga says he ate raw fish and bird flesh while drinking turtle blood and his own urine when rain was lacking.

"He could have died. But thanks to god my cousin is a warrior, because I don't know what would have happened to another person," said Marisol Alvarenga, 35, who came to the airport with another cousin to wait for his arrival.

"We are happy he is coming back after so much time," she said just before his emotional welcome.

Salvadoran presidency spokesman David Rivas told AFP that Alvarenga would receive "special treatment," arriving at the airport's VIP section to meet his family and Foreign Minister Jaime Miranda.

He was to head to a hospital by ambulance near San Salvador, where doctors will decide whether he should spend the night there or can return to his Pacific coast fishing village of Garita Palmera.

Relatives of Salvadorean castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga  prepare to receive him at their home in G...
Relatives of Salvadorean castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga, prepare to receive him at their home in Garita Palmera, 118 km west of San Salvador on February 11, 2014
Jose Cabezas, AFP

After a health setback delayed his departure from the Marshall Islands until Monday, officials took no chances and made Alvarenga undergo checkups before every flight.

He was given the all-clear in Hawaii and then in Los Angeles, allowing him to board a flight that landed in El Salvador around 8:00pm local time (0200 GMT), the foreign ministry said.

Officials said he was in a delicate state, with swollen legs but in stable condition.

The fisherman was in and out of hospital in the Marshall Islands, suffering from dehydration and a range of ailments including back pain, swollen joints and lethargy.

In Garita Palmera, his parents and 14-year-old daughter, Fatima, decorated their humble home with blue balloons and palm leaves for his arrival.

"We are preparing to welcome him. It is joy for all of us," his father Ricardo Orellana told AFP.

Fatima was anxious to see the man whose face she could not initially recognize but has now become a celebrity around the world.

The fisherman says he lived in a seven-meter (24-foot) fiberglass boat for 13 months, enduring the odyssey by grabbing turtles off the water and snatching approaching birds.

He told AFP last week that his crewmate, 24-year-old Ezequiel Cordoba, could not stomach the food and starved to death four months into the voyage.

Cordoba's family in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas say they want Alvarenga to tell them what happened, though they do not blame him for his death.

Alvarenga's miraculous story was met with some doubt when images first emerged of him with shaggy hair and a bushy beard, but looking plump.

But officials have said his story checks out, and survival experts concede living in such conditions is theoretically possible.

Fishermen in the Mexican village of Chocohuital backed up his story, saying they went looking for him when he disappeared in late 2012. They say pictures of his boat in the Marshall Islands confirm it is his.

In Garita Palmera, villagers were looking forward to hearing his story, which young fishermen believe.

"I would like for him to sit with us here on the beach and tell us about his adventure," said Tomas Leiva, 17, dragging a fishing net.

"For us youngsters, it would help us learn to survive."

More about Marshalls, Mexico, Salvador, Survival, Transport
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