, CHOCOHUITAL, Feb 6 – Well before his incredible tale of survival in a 13-month Pacific odyssey, Jose Salvador Alvarenga consumed raw fish and turtle blood in his Mexican fishing village — the very things that saved him at sea.
Fellow fishermen in Chocohuital, a village nestled on a lagoon in the southern state of Chiapas, remember Alvarenga as a good man with a quirky diet that they say gives credence to his amazing story.
The burly man they knew as “La Chancha,” the Spanish word for a sow, would gobble up anything, including dog food.
“He wasn’t picky. He ate everything. When he grabbed sardines, which we use as bait, we would tell him ‘no Chancha!’ But he would say with his husky voice: ‘Yes, you have to try everything,” his boss Bellardino Rodriguez said in an interview.
“We think that saved him,” Rodriguez said as fishermen rested on hammocks under huts on the shore of the lagoon lined with small, single-engine vessels.
Alvarenga, a 37-year-old native of El Salvador, has claimed that he survived more than a year lost in the Pacific after leaving Chocohuital on a fishing expedition aboard a seven-meter (24-foot) fiberglass boat in late 2012.
Alvarenga says he endured the 12,500-kilometer (8,000-mile) journey — which ended in the Marshall Islands last Thursday — by eating raw birds and fish as well as drinking turtle blood, his own urine and rainwater.
But Alvarenga has told AFP that a teenager named Ezequiel who had been with him for what was supposed to have been a one-day fishing trip couldn’t stomach the raw diet and starved to death.
After the pair disappeared 13 months ago, fishermen in Chocohuital say they searched for them for four days with the help of a government helicopter to no avail.
Rodriguez said Alvarenga had found his young assistant minutes before setting out to sea.
But once out, they were caught by powerful northern winds. Then their engine, their GPS system and their radio broke down.
In a final radio call, Rodriguez recalled, Alvarenga said: “The swells are more than four meters high. They’re godawful!”
Eating dog food
Officials in the Marshall Islands said Alvarenga would depart the tiny Pacific nation on Friday for Hawaii, before travelling on to El Salvador or Mexico.
This past week, the fishermen were awestruck when they saw images of Alvarenga on their small television with a bushy beard and walking slowly.
He looked stocky despite his struggle to find food in the middle of the ocean, but Rodriguez said Alvarenga was a muscular man before his disappearance.
To Rodriguez, his friend looked “weak, with a puffy face. He was strong, muscular.”
Experts say it is theoretically possible to survive such a journey, though many have a hard time believing his story.
But not his friends in Chocohuital.
Rodriguez said the boat seen in news footage belongs to the community.
“It’s from here. It has the license number and the name of our cooperative,” he said, noting that the vessel was also covered in small seashells that latch on at sea and that fishermen usually remove.
Fisherman Erick Manuel Velazquez said most in the village have contingency plans in case they get lost at sea, but that Alvarenga had the most unusual preparation.
“This man ate everything. He would even eat dog food,” Velazquez said. “He would tell us: One day, I’ll have to stay at sea.”
Local people believe turtles have magical effects on health, but La Chancha drank their blood because he liked it, so it was little surprising for his friends that he consumed it to stay alive.
“He would drink the turtle blood. I have tried it, but because I was sick with asthma and when it was over, I stopped drinking it,” Velazquez said.
Guillermina Morales, a woman who runs an eatery for the fishermen, doubted that Alvarenga, who moved to Mexico 15 years ago, had lost his head.
“How could he be crazy? If he was crazy, he wouldn’t have survived. Here, he acted like an honorable and working man,” she said. “He was also brave.”