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Translation: The Castaway

The Castaway
Silvia Viñas
29 minutes
Translated by Patrick Moseley

This episode of Radio Ambulante is possible thanks to MailChimp. More than 7 million people and businesses worldwide use MailChimp to send email and newsletters. It’s so easy. Even an adult could do it! To learn more, visit mailchimp.com

Daniel Alarcón: When I was in El Salvador last year, I spoke with some friends and colleagues and I did what I normally do: I asked them what story we needed to tell on Radio Ambulante, who we needed to meet. And several, not just a few, but several, said this name: Salvador Alvarenga. A name that sounded vaguely familiar.

News: “Hello, good evening. The story of José Salvador Alvarenga, the famous Salvadorian castaway”… “Who spent 438 days at sea. Yes, 438 days.” … “Here we see him with long hair and a full beard, upon his arrival at Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands.” … “Barefoot, dressed in rags, long haired, unkempt and malnourished…”

Daniel Alarcón: It was a story that circled the globe. The Salvadorian man who survived more than a year on the high seas. But my friends said, “No, no, no, don’t even think about it, it’ll be impossible to talk to him.” And that’s how things were.

But life is a funny thing. One day, months later, I was invited to a live interview program in California, and as I looked over the event schedule, I saw that the other interviewee was none other than Salvador Alvarenga.

Welcome to Radio Ambulante I’m Daniel Alarcón.

That same day, I spoke with Salvador and asked him for an interview. A few weeks later, our producer Silvia Viñas was on her way to Los Angeles…

Silvia Viñas: In order to get an interview with Salvador, first you need to talk to his lawyer. In those days in Los Angeles, Salvador was visiting relatives, doing interviews with the press… And he has told his story many times, but when he sat down to speak with me, I noticed it was still hard for him to recall what he experienced during those more than 400 days at sea.

His relationship with the sea is rather long. It started when he was ten years old.

Salvador Alvarenga: I started getting in boats, just to try it out, to see how it felt, and since I lived on the beach, I always liked it.

Silvia: Salvador was born in Garita Palmera, a very small costal town to the southeast of San Salvador. His father owned a flour mill and his mother was in charge of a small supermarket. But most of the people who live in Garita Palmera are fishermen. One of them, who they called Inés el loco (Crazy Inés), gave him his fist lessons in fishing:

Salvador: He took me to see if I could fish, or if I would vomit or get dizzy, things like that. None of that happened to me, I always liked working.

Silvia: That is why Salvador decided to leave high school and started working as a fisherman. He earned some money and fell in love with a girl in town. A little later, they had a daughter, but the month she was born, Salvador got caught up in a complicated situation. He was involved in a bar fight and had to leave Garita Palmera. He wound up in a small town in Mexico called Costa Azul, where he also worked in fishing. He started as a fisherman’s assistant and climbed the ranks little by little before becoming a “tiburonero”, shark fisherman.

Salvador: There were 37 tiburoneros. Of those, four of us were the bravest because, well, I’ll tell you, we would go out offshore.

Silvia: The sharks they fished measured around 10 feet and could weigh up to 250, 300 pounds. Salvador and his companions went about 320 miles offshore and fished for three days and three nights.

Silvia: Why did you go out so far?

Salvador: Really it was because we liked it, well for me it was the adrenaline, feeling the pressure of the sea, knowing that when I was fishing I did everything my way, with my GPS, and the further I went, the more sharks I would catch.

Silvia: One morning in November 2012, Salvador woke up like any other day, and got ready to go fishing with his coworker, who they called “Rey Pérez” (King Pérez).

Salvador: I brought clothes, a blanket, GPS… Uh, a radio, telephone, food, cigarettes, things like that.

Silvia: Salvador was the captain of the ship and he and Rey worked well together. They spent years fishing together.

Salvador: We would fish. He did his job, I dealt with the motors, he dealt with the meat, killing the fish. Everything was fine, well; everything was calm. We didn’t fight, we always went along…knowing that we would make money.

Silvia: That morning they traveled for 6 hours to a place that they knew was good for fishing. They fished and early in the morning they decided to make the journey back to land to clean up, eat, get more provisions and go out again. But when they arrived at Costa Azul, Rey told Salvador that he needed to sign some papers. He asked him to wait, that he was coming and they could go fishing again. Salvador said he would wait until 11. But 11 arrived and Rey wasn’t there.

Salvador didn’t want to wait longer. A friend got a twenty two year old man named Ezequiel Córdoba to accompany him. Ezequiel and Salvador didn’t know each other well. They had played soccer together a few weeks earlier, but they had never gone fishing together.

Before setting out, Willie, the owner of the boats, warned the fishermen that a storm was coming which they called “el norte” (the north). But Salvador was calm. If the storm had been too close Willie wouldn’t have let them go fishing:

Salvador: But since el norte was still four days out, well, I knew we could go out and come back.

Silvia: Salvador left with Ezequiel and even though the sea was rough -rougher than they expected- they managed to catch quite a lot of fish. But things weren’t going so well for Ezequiel. He vomited everything he had eaten. He was afraid. He wasn’t as experienced as Salvador. He had just learned to sail and wasn’t used to sailing in these conditions. But Salvador was.

Salvador: A lot of storms, bad weather, rain, strong winds. Nasty. Wave after wave after wave…

Silvia: With the waves and the weight of the fish, it was nearly impossible to control the boat. Salvador had to make a decision:

Salvador: I threw out 1,300 pounds of fish, because I either tossed them out or sank.

Silvia: All they could do was try to get back to land. But traveling back to shore in those conditions was extremely complicated. They had a 5 hour journey ahead of them, sailing through a storm that kept getting worse. They didn’t know where they were; water had gotten into the boat and damaged the GPS. And to make things worse…

Salvador: Well, uh, I was running the motors like that when they started to make a tstststststsss sound and they shut off. And I said, “What’s going on? Come on! Come on!” and nothing. I got blisters on my hands you wouldn’t believe, pulling on those motors. “Impossible”, I said.

Silvia: The radio was still working and he called his boss, Willie, to tell him that the motors in the boat were damaged.

Salvador: “I’m facing Boca al Cielo”, I told him, “look for me at 30 degrees”. “No, that’s impossible” And then after he said: “Impossible” that’s what we were talking about when WHOOSH a wave fell and it took the radios, it took the blankets, it took ooofff.

Silvia: It took everything. And it nearly took Ezequiel, who fell into to sea when the wave hit.

Salvador: When the wave hit, he fell and I lifted him by his hair.

Silvia: He brought him back into the boat, but Salvador told me that later he said: “I wish you had left me, that I died… I wouldn’t be suffering now.”

Since his coworkers at Costa Azul already knew that Salvador and Ezequiel were in trouble, they started organizing a rescue plan right away. Rey was one of the fisherman who volunteered to go out on that first search. They didn’t find them and the sea was still rough. In the following days, as the weather calmed, more fisherman and local authorities went out to search for them by sea and by air.

Salvador: Seven days in a plane, a week, and they didn’t find me.

Silvia: While the others were searching, Salvador and Ezequiel kept struggling with the storm.

Salvador: Just rain, just nortes, just wet, cold.

Silvia: It was like that for nearly a week, until finally the storm ended.

Salvador: When that was over, I felt happy, because the sea stayed flat like that. “My god!”, I said, “The worst is over now.” And that’s all there was, silence.

Silvia: With the damaged motors, they knew that they no longer had any way of getting back to Costa Azul. Salvador didn’t know then, but he was already nearly 300 miles away from the Mexican Coast.

Salvador and Ezequiel thought it was a miracle that they were alive and that the boat was intact. It was then that Salvador decided to change the name of the ship from “Camaroneros de la Costa #3” to “Titanic”

Salvador: I didn’t see it break any ice or anything but it came against nortes, waves, things that could break it. My boat broke records.

Silvia: But his Titanic didn’t have a roof and during the day the heat was unbearable. To protect themselves from the sun they hid under a cooler that could barely fit the two of them. Worse still, they didn’t have any food or water and their bodies began to feel the effects.

Salvador: Aching, stress, pains, without eating, uh, tortillas or fruit; without eating anything, not even a vitamin, well, it was ugly

Silvia: They started to see coconuts floating around the boat. The temptation to jump out of the boat and grab them was enormous, but Salvador knew how dangerous it was to get in the water.

Salvador: Well, if you fall in the water, the sharks eat you, or piranhas, or the trigger fish, which are really violent.

Silvia: They started to see more activity among the fish around the boat, but they also saw trash, left over pieces of fruit.. Plastic bottles that they managed to grab, which they planned to use to collect water when it finally rained. They didn’t have anything to make into a fishing hook, so Salvador started fishing with his hands. At first the fish got away, but with practice, he managed to perfect his technique.

Salvador: We came across some fish really close to the boat and after a while it was trrrrrr fish. My God! Finally, a blessing. I had a knife, two knives, I cut them open and ate it all, the guts, the eyes I ate everything, I didn’t waste any of it. When a fish got away I cried because it was gone.

Silvia: Ten days had already passed since the motor was damaged. In those days, they would see a plane and then a boat in the distance, but no one saw them… They still didn’t have any water. The fish helped a little, but they were still very hungry. One night they heard a thump. It was a sea turtle that had run into the boat. Salvador grabbed it, killed it with his knife and used a tube from the motor as a straw…to drink the blood. At first, Ezequiel didn’t want to eat the turtle’s meat. Salvador had to convince him, and finally he ate it, but he never brought himself to drink the blood.

Salvador: I drank my urine; I drank the blood from turtles, birds, fish, and things like that. Something that my friend wouldn’t do because he thought it was disgusting.

Silvia: Salvador was ready to do whatever it took to survive.

Jonathan Franklin: It’s a combination of the perfect body and the perfect mind for this type of survival.

Silvia: This is Jonathan Franklin, a US journalist who wrote a book about Salvador’s odyssey. He spent months with him and a year researching his story. Jonathan says that a combination of several factors helped Salvador survive: he was young -in his thirties- but he was experienced, he was strong, and he wasn’t very big -he was about 5’2” and at that time he weighed about 130 pounds… So he didn’t need as much food and water as a bigger person word.

Jonathan: At that time, his body was ideal for this, and his mind was set on being positive. He is very, very optimistic. He is so sure he can survive, so that whatever challenge he faced during those 14 weeks, he had about 5 ideas and solutions.

Silvia: After about two weeks without motors, it finally rained.

Salvador: Thank God! I rained for about 10 minutes. We gathered water in the cooler, the thing from the motors and the hoods. What delicious water! I felt life again, I felt like: “My God, how great!” About seven days later it rained again. Then I had some bottles and I filled them with rain water and saved them.

Silvia: They rationed the water and the food so it would last longer. To pass the time they talked, imagining they were somewhere else. They pretended that Salvador went to the store to buy food. They were like children. But these games helped them. At night…

Salvador: We counted the stars, I counted up to 400, up to 1000 over there, things like that… “Who counted more?” I said.

Silvia: But despite Salvador’s optimism, it was hard to keep their spirits up.

Salvador: It’s stressful. Not everyone can handle stress like that. We were always thinking about death and about yourself…we would always start to think ugly thoughts.

Silvia: It was particularly hard for Ezequiel…

Salvador: The boy cried a lot, he missed his mother, his siblings…

Silvia: Salvador did what he could to help him, but one day Ezequiel hit rock bottom. They added birds to their diet of fish and turtles, which they obviously ate raw. One day, Ezequiel noticed that the bird he picked to eat was green on the inside. The bird had eaten a snake.

Salvador: The snake had already dissolved inside the bird, all that was left was a skeleton. He ate it. He didn’t realize until a little later. The next day he refused to eat, since it caused him stress, things like vomiting….

Silvia: That incident with the bird lowered Ezequiel’s spirits, which were already as low as it gets. Salvador kept trying to cheer him up.

Salvador: “Let’s talk about something, even it’s made up, anything.” “I think I’m going to die now”, he would tell me. Hard words. “Don’t say that,” I told him, “because we’re going to get out of this someday.” “No, I don’t want to, goddamit…” He went crazy, hitting himself in the boat and wanting to kill himself. And I said “calm down.”

Silvia: On the morning of March 15th, 2013, after 118 days at sea and roughly 2,900 miles from the coast of Mexico, Ezequiel died.

Salvador: He died from hunger, he died from thirst, he died from stress, for sure.

Silvia: What was it like being alone after Ezequiel’s death? How did you feel?

Salvador: Well, uh, alone, crying over my friend’s death, I said “Who will I talk to?” Just God.

Silvia: Salvador sat Ezequiel’s body on the edge of the boat and he kept talking to it for several days.

Salvador: “Hello” I would say, “how is your morning, Ezequiel?” , in my mind he’d say “fine” and things like that. And then I asked him what death was like, if he was suffering… Then I got the idea that I was, well, going crazy talking to a dead man and I said, “I’m going to throw him in the water. Just like that.”

Silvia: After 6 days, he decided to throw Ezequiel’s body into the water. And then, he fainted.

When he came to, a very different phase started for Salvador. The loneliness was so terrible that several times he thought about killing himself…

Salvador: I would throw myself out of the boat, like to drown myself. Then I would regret it and go back to the boat. Not even a shark would eat me. It was dangerous. I was getting in the water to see if something would eat me. No, no, nothing ever touched me. I asked for help from God, I said, “God tell me what to do, get rid of these horrible thoughts of killing myself.”

Silvia: And he went on like that, floating in the Pacific Ocean another 300 days, barely surviving on raw fish and birds. Alone. Jonathan, the journalist I mentioned before, told me that what surprised him most was that Salvador hadn’t gone insane.

Jonathan: That he was able to emotionally deal with all these situations. He talked to the sea. He talked to the clouds. He was always thanking his boat for carrying him.

Silvia: On January 15th, 2014, 424 day after the motors on his boat were damaged, Salvador started to see lights in the distance. He saw them for days and was afraid that his boat would pass them by with the sea current. Two weeks later, he started to see a lot of birds.

Salvador: Tas tas tas and they just fell into the boat and I thought “My Lord, so much food.” I see trees, my God, and a coast! I’m hallucinating, I told myself.

Silvia: Salvador estimated he was about 12 miles from the coast. He wasn’t strong enough to swim that far, and he knew he could come across sharks. So he stayed in the boat, hoping the current would take him to the coast.

Salvador: I slept half an hour, after seeing the coast. I was full, it was delicious, I drank a little water… When I woke up, “My God, I’m saved!”

Silvia: He was very close to the shore. He grabbed his knife and threw himself into the water. The water came up to his waist, but he couldn’t walk; his feet were swollen and burning, so he crawled until he reached dry land. It was an uninhabited island. He didn’t see people or buildings, just the beach and vegetation. He collapsed from exhaustion and fell asleep. When he woke up he kept crawling, moving toward the center of the island.

He had arrived at a small island that is part of Ebon, a group of 22 islands in the Marshall Islands. If you visualize a map of the world in your mind, the Marshall Islands looks like a bunch of little spots to the northeast of Australia –between Australia and Hawaii.

Salvador kept on crawling, he would stop and rest. He would sleep, wake up again and eat coconut that he found and cut open with his knife, and then he would start again. He fell asleep, and the next morning he saw something red he could hardly make out. It was far off on the other side of a canal. And then he heard a rooster.

He walked toward the red spot and realized it was a shirt hanging on a line. He had to stop every so often to rest. He made it to the bank of the channel and on the other side he saw the shirt and a small house, a shanty…

Salvador: I shouted: “Heeeeeelp!”

Silvia: In the house a woman, Emi, was eating breakfast when she heard Salvador and saw him on the other side of the canal. Russel, her husband, was frightened at what he saw. Salvador was nearly naked, thin, long haired and unshaven. But Emi insisted that they had to help him. So they left their house and headed for the canal. Salvador was on the other side.

Salvador: They saw I was hairy, naked and holding a knife. And I wanted to hug them, but there was a canal between us and I was afraid of the water, going back to the water, getting in. I said “God I can’t”

Silvia: Russel shouted to him in English to throw the knife. Salvador didn’t understand English, but he understood his gestures and didn’t want to get rid of the knife — it had been essential to his survival. But he gave in and after throwing the knife in the water, he fell to his knees and started to pray. Then, Russel approached him.

Salvador: He hugged me and gave me a shirt, he lifted me…as skinny as I was.

Silvia: Emi and Russel dressed him and brought him to their house. Salvador was terrified. He hadn’t seen another person for more than a year and he had no idea where he was. But Emi and Russel gave him food, water clothes and little by little Salvador began to feel more comfortable.

He tried to communicates with them through signs. They gave him a pen and pencil to write. They didn’t speak Spanish, but Russel grabbed the paper and sailed to the main island of Ebon. There Russel gave the paper to a boy and the boy brought it to the mayor who understood a few words from the message like “friend”, “mother” and “father”.

Rumors were already circulating about a castaway that had arrived at Ebon. A group of three people -the mayor, a police officer and an anthropologist- got together and went to Emi and Russel’s house by boat. The plan was to find out more about Salvador, see how he was doing and bring him back to the main island of Ebon. But, of course, the trip to that island would be in a boat.

Salvador: I wanted to run, I didn’t want to get in. ‘Ugh, to the sea again”, I said. But the captains sat me in a seat and told me not to worry. They put something on me, like a lifejacket, well so that nothing bad would happen.

Silvia: They arrived at the municipal offices of Ebon, and while the officials spoke with Majuro -the capital of the Marshall Islands and its largest city- people kept coming to see Salvador.

All the while, Salvador was frenzied at being there in Ebon, surrounded by people, without being able to understand anything or receive the medical attention he needed.

On January 31st, two days after he made land, the first article about Salvador was released. And a few days later, finally, an official police vessel came to retrieve him and take him to Majuro.

That is the moment we see in the news: Salvador getting off a boat, with baggy clothes, a can of Coke in his hand, unshaven and trembling while they help him off the ramp leading from the boat. Journalists and people from the island who wanted to see the now famous castaway were waiting for him outside. That’s when the barrage of journalists began.

Salvador: They broke windows to ask how I was doing right then, and, well, I didn’t want to say anything.

Silvia: There was a lot of doubt about the truth of his story.

News: “The castaway’s story still poses many questions” … “Adrift at sea for thirteen months” …“Thirteen months. Not eating three square meals a day, and look at the shape of him” … “I doubt it because, I mean, in a boat in the middle of the ocean, how do you catch a turtle?”.

Silvia: While Salvador was in the hospital in Majuro recovering for his return to El Salvador, authorities and journalists were trying to corroborate his story. For many, like Jonathan, the fact that Salvador wanted nothing to do with the press showed something.

Jonathan: If you are going to commit a fraud, you want to manipulate the press, not avoid it. So for me it was a good sign that he refused to do interviews. Almost proof that something real was happening.

Silvia: A few months later, back in El Salvador, they would confirm his story with a polygraph test.

After 11 days in the Marshall Islands, the doctors said that he had recovered enough to return to El Salvador. In the video of his arrival, Salvador appears, now shaven, with short hair, being pushed in a wheel chair by some officials. You can see the flash from the cameras. They stop the wheel chair in front of a microphone. They give it to him but Salvador can’t speak. He takes the microphone, sighs, looks down and in a very low voice you can hear him say “I don’t know what to say”; He tries again but he can’t and then they start to applaud. An official takes the microphone and asks the press and the waiting audience to excuse Salvador. But then a journalist is heard hounding him, saying “How do you feel to be in your country?” and an official insisted “Wave! Wave!”.

In the hospital, when the Ministry of Health interviewed him, Salvador asked them to leave him alone.

Interviewer: The people want to know how you are.

Salvador: I’m fine. I want to be left alone. No more questions or pictures or anything… I want to be alone with my family, to be well, that’s all…

Interviewer: Thank you very much.

Silvia: His recovery has been long, and while he tries to regain his physical and mental health, he’s had to deal with a lot. Some of it has been happy, like being reunited with his daughter Fátima, who he hadn’t seen since she was a baby, and with his parents. But he’s also had to go through some hardship. Perhaps one of the most difficult experiences was going back to Mexico to see Ezequiel’s mother. During those first days, when they were on the boat, they made a promise to each other: if one of them died, the survivor had to go see the other’s family.

Salvador: It was a difficult meeting, I said to the woman, “Are you ready for what I’m about to say?” and she hugged me. “I’m sorry, but your son didn’t come back. I don’t know where he is, I can’t tell you.”

Silvia: Salvador says that Ezequiel’s mother fainted. Despite everything, he felt at peace, having kept his promise.

Maybe you have heard rumors that Ezequiel’s family is suing Salvador because he supposedly ate him. That happened after I interviewed Salvador, so I asked Jonathan about it. And he told me that he had asked Salvador the same thing, several times.

Jonathan: And he always had a very clear answer. At that time he had a lot of food, he had a couple of turtles, fish… So he didn’t talk about the morality of the issue very much, he simply said it wasn’t necessary.

Silvia: The situation surrounding the lawsuit is unclear. But Ezequiel’s mother says that no one had mentioned anything to her about it and most importantly: she doesn’t harbor any resentment toward Salvador.

When I spoke to him, it had been nearly two years since he appeared in the Marshall Islands. And since then his life has changed radically. I asked him if he hoped that one day people would stop asking him about his 438 days at sea.

Salvador: Impossible. There are always going to be people who ask, maybe until I die, I’ll always hear about it.

Daniel Alarcón: Silvia Viñas is a producer and editor for Radio Ambulante.

Special thanks to Jonathan Franklin. Many of the details from the story came to us thanks to his book “438 días” which will go on sale in Spanish in October 2016, from Planeta publishing. And thank you as well to Alejandra Quintero and Diana Buendía for their help on this story.

This story was edited by Camila Segura, Martina Castro and by me. Martina is in charge of sound design. The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Luis Trelles and Barbara Sawhill. The executive director is Carolina Guerrero.

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin American To hear more, visit our website,radioambulante.org. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.

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