MAJURO (AFP) – 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 also described being forced to dump the body of his teenage companion overboard when he starved to death, but said his own strong religious faith helped as he drifted some 12,500 kilometres (8,000 miles) from Mexico to the Marshall Islands.
“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!”
The stockily built Alvarenga looked in remarkably good physical shape when he arrived in the Marshalls capital Majuro five days after landing on the remote Ebon Atoll.
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.
Dreaming of tortillas
Speaking from hospital Alvarenga said he would dream of eating all his favourite foods as he drifted across the Pacific.
“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.
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.
“My heart would tell me that my son was not dead but I wondered about it so often that I had started to lose faith.”
Alvarenga said he set out on a one-day fishing expedition in late December 2012 with a teenager named Xiguel, when they became lost in their 24-foot (seven-metre) fibreglass boat.
“We had just finished a day of shark fishing when the motor died,” he said. “I wasn’t worried at first but I couldn’t get a radio signal, and meanwhile there was a wind that pushed us further out.”
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.
Pushed body overboard
“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 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.”
Starting out the trip with fishing gear, he also caught fish, and learned to stand still in the rocking boat until sea birds came close enough for him to grasp.
“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 making landfall at Ebon Atoll, 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.
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.