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article imageSalvadoran castaway set for 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 was due to return Tuesday to his homeland, where his family eagerly awaited the reunion with balloons.

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

Sporting a new haircut and clean shave, the 37-year-old was heading home to a family that thought he was dead until he emerged, recounting how he ate raw fish and birds and drank urine and turtle blood to survive.

"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.

Salvadoran castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga (R) shakes hands with Marshall Islands President Christo...
Salvadoran castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga (R) shakes hands with Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak at the airport in Majuro on February 10, 2014
Hilary Hosia, AFP/File

The hour of his return remained a mystery, with officials making sure he was healthy enough to make each flight after his original departure from the Marshall Islands was delayed until Monday due to a health setback.

After a stop in Hawaii, he flew to Los Angeles where he was due to undergo a medical examination to decide whether he could board the final flight home, a Salvadoran foreign ministry official told AFP.

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.

In his home village of Garita Palmera, on El Salvador's west coast, his parents and 14-year-old daughter, Fatima, decorated their humble brick 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 from the fishing and beach village.

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

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.

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

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, his hair shaggy and sporting 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.

The Salvadoran government has disclosed little about his emotional return home, insisting that Alvarenga wanted privacy after giving a flurry of media interviews while in the Marshall Islands.

"His family and him say they feel inundated by the constant calls and requests from the media and have asked us to transmit their (privacy) request," said Foreign Minister Jaime Miranda.

Alvarenga was expected to get another medical examination in El Salvador before heading to his village.

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, villagers were looking forward to hearing his story of survival, which some said they believe, including young fishermen.

"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, Transport, Survival
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