Garita Palmera, El Salvador - The family of Salvadoran castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga hung balloons and palm leaves in their humble home for his expected return on Tuesday after his amazing story of survival adrift in the Pacific.
The fisherman was on a shorter and more comfortable plane ride across the Pacific, two weeks after washing ashore in the Marshall Islands and telling the world he had survived 13 months adrift in a small boat.
With a new haircut and clean shave, the 37-year-old was heading home to a family that thought he was dead until he emerged recounting how he ate raw fish and birds and drank urine and turtle blood to survive.
Alvarenga, who left El Salvador more than a decade ago, was living in Mexico's southern coast when he says he went on an ill-fated shark fishing trip in late 2012 with a companion who later died.
“We are preparing to welcome him. It is joy for all of us,” his father Ricardo Orellana told AFP from El Salvador's coastal village of Garita Palmera, known for its fishing and beach.
Alvarenga flew out of the Marshall Islands on Monday after getting the green light from doctors, three days later than planned because of a health setback last week.
He landed in Hawaii before another expected layover in the US West Coast, but Salvadoran officials have kept a tight lid on his itinerary and say that his arrival could be delayed if his health suffers during the journey.
His 14-year-old daughter, Fatima, was anxious to see the man whose face she could not initially recognise and whose story has been hailed as one of history's greatest maritime endurance feats, although sceptics say it is so incredible it is difficult to believe.
Fatima, who has been living with her paternal grandparents since she was a baby, spent Monday inflating balloons to decorate the family's simple green-painted brick house.
The fisherman says he lived in a seven-metre fibreglass boat for 13 months, enduring the 12 500km odyssey by grabbing turtles off the water and snatching approaching birds.
He told AFP last week that his crewmate, 24-year-old Ezequiel Cordoba, could not stomach the food and starved to death four months into the voyage.
Cordoba's family in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas say they want Alvarenga to tell them what happened, though they do not blame him for his death.
Alvarenga's miraculous story was met with some doubt when images first emerged of him, his hair shaggy and sporting a bushy beard, but looking plump.
But officials have said his story checks out and survival experts concede living in such conditions is theoretically possible.
The Salvadoran government has disclosed little about his emotional return home, insisting that Alvarenga wanted privacy after giving a flurry of media interviews while in the Marshall Islands.
“We expect him to return to the country tomorrow (Tuesday), but his return and his flight depend on his health,” said Foreign Minister Jaime Miranda.
Alvarenga underwent a health check in Hawaii, but the government said it did not know the results.
He was in and out of hospital in the Marshall Islands, suffering from dehydration and a range of ailments including back pain, swollen joints and lethargy.
Miranda said the government has not prepared any official programme for his return and will leave it up to Alvarenga to make any public statements.
“His family and him say they feel inundated by the constant calls and requests from the media and have asked us to transmit their (privacy) request,” Miranda said.
He said Alvarenga was returning home to recuperate from his ordeal and that the government may help him return to work.
In Garita Palmera, villagers were looking forward to hearing his story of survival, which some said they believe, including young fishermen.
“I would like for him to sit with us here on the beach and tell us about his adventure,” said Tomas Leiva, 17, as he dragged a fishing net.
“For us youngsters, it would help us learn to survive.”