After 13 months at sea, El Salvador castaway returns home

The 37-year-old arrived in San Salvador, to a media throng, a daughter who didn’t remember him and a mother who had thought him dead

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The Pacific castaway José Salvador Alvarenga has arrived back in the country of his birth, El Salvador, from the Marshall Islands where he washed up saying he had become lost in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico 13 months earlier.

The 37-year-old arrived at the international airport outside the capital, San Salvador, to a media throng, a daughter who didn’t remember him and a mother who had thought him dead. He was quickly taken to a VIP lounge where he was met by

Salvadoran officials, including the foreign minister and an assistant secretary of health.

“I’m so happy to know he’s alive, that he returned. I want to give him a hug,” said Emma Alvarenga, an aunt who arrived at the airport to see him but was left with the crush of more than 100 mostly foreign journalists waiting for a news conference.

Alvarenga’s story stunned the world when he washed up on the Ebon atoll almost two weeks ago, appearing robust and barely sunburned after more than a year at sea. But he had started out a much larger man and turned out to be swollen, in pain and dehydrated.

His journey home after a week of rest and medical treatment in Majuro was marked by long layovers in Honolulu and Los Angeles, where doctors checked his health and ability to continue the trip.

His father, Jose Ricardo Orellana, 65, who owns a store and flour mill in the seaside Salvadoran town of Garita Palmera, said his son first went to sea at age 14. “The sea was his thing,” Orellana said.

Maria Julia Alvarenga, 59, said her son always had unusual strength and resilience. His 14-year-old daughter, Fatima, made an archway of palms for the front door of the family home and a sign: “Welcome.” She didn’t remember ever seeing her father, who left El Salvador to fish in Mexico when she was just over a year old.

Dozens of international journalists camped outside the family’s green, brick complex with a ceramic floor about 10 blocks from the sea in an otherwise poor fishing village. “I haven’t seen him for eight years. We’re friends, we fished together,” said Hector Antonio Zuniga, 39, who said he was dropping his nephew off at the airport and decided to wait and greet Alvarenga.

Alvarenga’s tale of drifting across 6,500 miles (10,500km) of open ocean – eating raw fish, turtles and drinking bird blood to survive – initially left many sceptical. But experts said it would have been possible for him to survive, and over several days details emerged that seemed to corroborate his story.

Alvarenga said he worked in a fishing village on the Pacific coast of Mexico’s southern Chiapas state, where he embarked, and a man with his nickname, Cirilo, had been registered as missing with civil defence officials there after a small fishing boat disappeared without trace during bad weather on 17 November 2012.

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