Tuesday, 29th July 2014

Pacific castaway says dreams of family, food sustained him


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A castaway who says he survived 13 months adrift in the Pacific said Tuesday he thought about suicide but was sustained by dreams of eating his favourite food -- tortillas -- and reuniting with his family.

Fisherman Jose Salvador Alvarenga said his strong religious faith helped as he drifted some 12,500 kilometres (8,000 miles) from Mexico to the Marshall Islands, and described being forced to dump the body of his teenage companion overboard when he starved to death.

"I didn't want to die of starvation," he told AFP through a Spanish interpreter at Majuro Hospital, where he is recuperating after being found disoriented last Thursday at a remote coral atoll.

"There were times I would think about killing myself. But I was scared to do it," he added, raising his arm, pointing to heaven and declaring: "God! Faith!"

Alvarenga said he would dream of eating all his favourite foods.

"But then I woke up and all I see is the sun, sky and the sea," he said. "My dream for over a year is to eat a tortilla, chicken and so many other types of food.

"I would imagine and dream a lot about my family -- my mother and my father," he said. Alvarenga said he was not married but has a daughter named Fatima who he was anxious to see again.

His parents feared he had been killed.

"Thank God he is alive. We are overjoyed... I just want him here with us," his mother Maria Julia Alvarenga told CNN in his homeland El Salvador, whose government says it is working with Mexico to bring him home.

Pushed body overboard

Alvarenga said he set out on a shark fishing expedition in late December 2012 with a teenager named Xiguel, when they became lost in their 24-foot (seven-metre) fibreglass boat.

The 37-year-old's mood darkened as he described how the boy, who he says was aged 15-18, died four months into their voyage, unable to survive on a diet of raw bird flesh, turtle blood and his own urine.

"He couldn't keep the raw food down and he kept vomiting," Alvarenga said. "I tried to get him to hold his nose and eat but he kept vomiting."

He said the teenager died of starvation and he pushed his body into the ocean. "What else could I do?"

Alvarenga said he tried to keep track of time as the sun moved across the sky but weeks and months eventually blurred.

Every so often he would hear something bump the side of the boat. Invariably it was a sea turtle.

"I was able to reach over the side of the boat and grab them," he said. "I caught many turtles over the course of my drift," he said.

Drank own urine

Starting out the trip with fishing gear, he also caught fish.

"The hardest thing I had to do to survive was to drink my own urine," he said.

This was during a period when "for three months it didn't rain". When it did, he used the hull of his boat to store water.

Alvarenga described his joy at finally making landfall at Ebon Atoll after so long at sea, saying he spotted a house and crawled up the beach towards it.

"I went towards it and began yelling for help," he said. Two Marshallese came out and helped the stranger, who was clad only in a ragged pair of underpants, by giving him coconut juice.

The stockily built Alvarenga looked in remarkably good physical shape when he arrived in the Marshalls capital Majuro five days later aboard a police patrol boat.

Sporting a bushy beard and with his hair bleached a ginger colour by the sun, he was helped down the gangplank by a male nurse but he did not appear to have chapped lips, blistered skin or other signs of severe exposure.

"He looked better than one would expect," US ambassador Thomas Armbruster said on Monday after acting as an interpreter for the Marshallese authorities.

However, extraordinary feats of survival are not uncommon in the Pacific. Three Mexicans washed up in the Marshalls in 2006 after nine months adrift.

In Majuro, foreign ministry officials said Manila-based ambassador Julio Camarena, who represents Mexico to the Marshall Islands, has offered to pay for Alvarenga's ticket back to Mexico.


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