Salvadoran castaway healthy, emotionally fragile after what he called year-long sea voyage

The Associated Press

Relatives of Jose Salvador Alvarenga decorate the family's home with balloons and a welcome home sign in Garita Palmera, El Salvador, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. The family of Alvarenga, the 37-year-old who says he survived more than a year on a small boat drifting from Mexico across the Pacific Ocean to the Marshall Islands, is preparing for his return to his home town after he landed in the capital late Tuesday. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

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By MARCOS ALEMAN, Associated Press

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — A fisherman who says he drifted at sea for more than a year, surviving on raw fish, turtles and bird blood, is in stunningly good health but psychologically fragile, medical experts said Wednesday as he recuperated in a hospital in his native El Salvador.

Jose Salvador Alvarenga told doctors he came close to giving up hope of being rescued after several large ships came near his small fishing boat but none tried to rescue him, even though sailors on at least one even waved at him.

"They passed close by, he asked them for help and they didn't want to provide it," said El Salvador's minister of public health, Maria Isabel Rodriguez. "There was one that almost destroyed his little boat because it came so close, but nobody helped him."

Although he was close to despair, "his desire to live was greater, he thought of his family and said that he wanted to live," Rodriguez said.

Alvarenga underwent a battery of tests after returning home from the Marshall Islands, where he showed up after what he has described as 6,500-mile (10,500-kilometer) journey from Mexico across the Pacific that began when his small fishing boat was thrown off course by bad weather.

The medical team that examined him at the San Rafael hospital in the Salvadoran capital said he was in remarkably good physical health, with no skin lesions from overexposure to the sun and no cardiovascular or kidney issues. His only physical problem, doctors, was a case of anemia.

"All of the exams have been basically close to normal. It's incredible," Rodriguez said.

She and other Salvadoran experts who looked at Alvarenga's results said they had no doubt about the veracity of his tale, so incredible that it left many skeptical even in the absence of an alternate explanation for his appearance on the Marshall Islands' Ebon atoll.

"He challenges ideas about human physiology that we've had for a long time, but miracles exist and I don't think there's any reason to doubt him," hospital director Yeerles Ramirez told reporters.

All of the doctors expressed concern about Alvarenga's mental state, however, saying he appeared shaken and asked to be given as much privacy as possible.

"He's been telling us, 'Let me rest.' That's his phrasing, that we let him rest, and that people aren't taking pictures of him," Rodriguez said.

She said that after Alvarenga arrived at the San Salvador airport late Tuesday and saw dozens of waiting reporters, photographers and cameramen, "he quickly fell into a depression and started crying because he's not ready to talk to the whole world."

Alvarenga, 37, has asked for tortillas and a pupusa, a thick stuffed corn tortilla that is a Salvadoran specialty, and he has already eaten a tortilla with cheese, Rodriguez said.

Alvarenga will remain hospitalized for at least two days while he rests and undergoes a series of exams, among them a test of his kidney function, Ramirez told reporters outside the hospital.

Alvarenga's story stunned the world when he washed up on Ebon 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 doctors found that he was swollen and in pain from the ordeal, suffering from dehydration.

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

"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 outside the VIP lounge where he was taken.

His father, Jose Ricardo Orellana, 65, who owns a store and flour mill in the seaside Salvadoran town, has said his son first went to sea at age 14. "The sea was his thing," Orellana said last week after learning of Alvarenga's story.