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MONTHS ADRIFT: Pacific Castaway Returns Home

Castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga gets haircut

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

Ready or not.

Around 8 p.m., Alvarenga was back in his native El Salvador following the arrival of his United flight in that nation’s capital from Los Angeles, foreign ministry spokeswoman Irene Sanchez said.

An ambulance at the airport was to take him to a hospital, where his health will be monitored as it has since his rescue, according to Violeta Menjivar, El Salvador’s vice minister of health.

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 papusas, a popular Latin snack.

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.

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.”

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