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Castaway turned celebrity Alvarenga returns to native El Salvador

From Rafael Romo and Gustavo Valdes, CNN
updated 8:46 AM EST, Thu February 13, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Alvarenga appears in a wheelchair in San Salvador's airport, looking tired and weak
  • He says he survived more than a year stranded at sea
  • His family says it's been eight years since his last visit to his native town
  • Official says of Alvarenga's newfound celebrity: "He doesn't know what awaits him"

San Salvador, El Salvador (CNN) -- After more than a year adrift in the Pacific Ocean, and after eight years away from his hometown, Jose Salvador Alvarenga is home.

Around 8:30 p.m. (9:30 p.m. ET), after arriving on a flight from Los Angeles, Alvarenga was wheeled before a swarm of reporters in the airport terminal in El Salvador's capital of San Salvador. Looking tired and weak, he appeared unable to muster any words after being handed a microphone.

Alvarenga waved meekly -- eliciting applause from travelers and airport employees who'd lined up to see him -- and sat quietly in his wheelchair as people shouted out and cameras flashed. Then, he put his hand on his head as he was wheeled away.

His next stop was to be a hospital, where Violeta Menjivar, El Salvador's vice minister of health, said Alvarenga's health will be monitored.

Castaway returns to native El Salvador

If and when everything checks out, presumably, Alvarenga will be free to roam his native El Salvador.

But it's understandable if, when that happens, it will seem like a strange place.

His miraculous -- some say unbelievable -- story has captured the attention of so many. Even where he was found -- in an atoll in the Marshall Islands that is as secluded a locale as they come, set deep in the Pacific Ocean some 2,000 miles from Papua New Guinea and 2,400 miles from Hawaii -- Alvarenga's rescue and recovery attracted a crush of media. It got so intense he moved to an undisclosed location to avoid the hubbub, sources familiar with his care told CNN on Saturday.

Irene Sanchez, a spokeswoman for El Salvador's foreign ministry, said Alvarenga "felt harassed" over the last two weeks, after having spent so many weeks alone.

Now that he's going home, she said Tuesday that he's looking forward to spending time with his parents and daughter, as well as eating pupusas, a traditional Salvadoran dish.

As to all the attention from everyone else, Sanchez said, "He doesn't know what awaits him."

"He doesn't know what it is like to be a celebrity, or how to respond to all the media attention."

His odyssey began in late 2012 when, he said, he left Mexico on what was supposed to be a one-day fishing expedition. But Alvarenga said he and a 23-year-old companion were blown off course by northerly winds and then caught in a storm.

Eventually, the pair lost use of their engines and, according to Alvarenga, had no radio signal to report their plight.

Four weeks into their drift, his companion died of starvation because he refused to eat raw birds and turtles, Alvarenga said. Eventually, he threw the body overboard.

Castaway recounts how he survived

Alvarenga's next interaction with humans came January 30. It was then that islanders on Ebon, a remote atoll on the already remote Marshall Islands, spotted the mysterious visitor.

As he inhaled pancake after pancake, Alvarenga recounted what he'd gone through. Soon after, images of the bearded, bedraggled castaway began circulating worldwide.

His claims about his time stranded at sea garnered widespread skepticism about how he could survive the more than 6,000-mile trek across the open ocean.

But officials in the Marshall Islands have said repeatedly that they have no reason to doubt the story.

His story is resonating in his hometown, the coastal Salvadoran village of Garita Palmera.

Balloons and ribbons hang across the house where Alvarenga's family lives there, and a "Welcome Home" banner is strung up outside on a palm tree archway. A heart-shaped decoration made by his niece says, "May God bless you."

Now clean-shaven and gaining strength, Alvarenga is expected to end up back in Garita Palmera for his homecoming.

As she awaited his return this week, his mother, Julia Alvarenga, said she'd been praying for him since his last visit eight years ago.

"That was the only hope I had all this time," she said. "I would pray to God, and I won't lie to you, I was crying; but I never lost my faith."

5 things about the castaway's tale

CNN's Greg Botelho, Suzanne Chutaro, Miguel Marquez, Sarah Aarthun and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.

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