MAJURO, Marshall Islands – Castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga flew out of the Marshall Islands Monday on his way home to El Salvador after an odyssey he says saw him drifting in the Pacific for 13 months.
Alvarenga shook hands with Marshalls President Christopher Loeak in a brief ceremony at the airport before departing the island nation where he washed up 12 days ago with an amazing story of survival.
“Thank you for everything the people of the Marshall Islands have done for me during my stay,” the 37-year-old fisherman said through an interpreter as Loeak placed a woven lei garland around his neck.
Alvarenga will arrive in Hawaii in the early hours of Tuesday and then travel to San Salvador, most likely via the US West Coast, to be reunited with the family who had long thought he was dead.
It will be a quicker and more comfortable journey across the Pacific than the 12,500-kilometer (8,000-mile) odyssey which began when a fishing trip off the Mexican coast went awry in late 2012.
Alvarenga says he stayed alive in his seven-meter (24-foot) fibreglass boat on a diet of raw fish and bird flesh, with only turtle blood and his own urine to drink.
He told AFP last week that his crewmate — named as 24-year-old Ezequiel Cordoba — could not stomach such foodstuffs and starved to death four months into the voyage.
Officials have said his story checks out and survival experts concede living in such conditions is theoretically possible, supporting the veracity of what would be one of history’s greatest maritime endurance feats.
Alvarenga needed a green light from doctors to fly out of the Marshalls after suffering from ill-health in the wake of his ordeal, which ended when he was found disorientated and clad only in ragged underpants on a remote coral atoll.
He was in and out of hospital suffering from dehydration and a range of ailments including back pain, swollen joints and lethargy.
Franklyn House, a retired US doctor who met Alvarenga last week, said he had also become increasingly withdrawn and appeared to be suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
The Salvadoran had been due to leave last Friday but medics warned he was to sick and needed more rest.
Alvarenga lived as an illegal migrant in Mexico for more than a decade before the fateful shark-fishing trip and has expressed interest in moving back to his adopted homeland.
But Manila-based Mexican diplomat Christian Clay Mendez, who was in Majuro helping coordinate Alvarenga’s repatriation, made it clear he would have to go to El Salvador first, then apply to enter Mexico legally.
His parents, who have hailed his survival as “a divine miracle” live in western El Salvador, near the border with Guatemala, where they care for his 14-year-old daughter Fatima.
The girl has little recollection of her father and could not even picture his face until newspapers published photographs of the stocky fisherman with the bushy beard and unkempt hair who washed up on the other side of the Pacific.
In an interview with AFP from hospital last Tuesday, Alvarenga said he had suicidal thoughts during his trip but was sustained by dreams of reuniting with his family and eating tortilla and chicken.
His mother Maria Julia has said she is eager to oblige when he returns home.
“We will make him a big meal, but we won’t feed him fish because he must be bored of eating that,” she told AFP. “We will make him a big plate of meat, beans and cheese to help him recover.”