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Returned Mormon missionary uses Spanish skills to interpret for castaway

Published: Monday, June 29 2015 10:21 p.m. MDT

Matt Riding, right, serves as a Spanish interpreter for the Marshall Islands Police by interviewing Jose Salvador Alvarenga, a man who says he was adrift at sea for 13 months. Riding, who  learned Spanish as a Mormon missionary in the Dominican Republic, works as a cultural anthropologist for the Marshall Islands Historic Preservation Office at the Ministry of Internal Affairs. (Michael Terlep) Matt Riding, right, serves as a Spanish interpreter for the Marshall Islands Police by interviewing Jose Salvador Alvarenga, a man who says he was adrift at sea for 13 months. Riding, who learned Spanish as a Mormon missionary in the Dominican Republic, works as a cultural anthropologist for the Marshall Islands Historic Preservation Office at the Ministry of Internal Affairs. (Michael Terlep)

Matt Riding's Spanish was rusty at first, but returned quickly as he interacted with the long-bearded castaway.

"I was relieved that most of the words I needed came back," Riding said in an email to the Deseret News. "I was in awe of how calm he was. I expected someone more frantic I guess. But he was slumped on a couch telling his story very calmly, and repeatedly expressed his gratitude to God and the people who initially rescued him."

Riding, a cultural anthropologist for the Marshall Islands Historic Preservation Office at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, unexpectedly found himself interpreting for the Marshall Island police detectives as they interviewed Jose Salvador Alvarenga, the 37-year-old fisherman from El Salvador who says he survived for 13 months adrift in the Pacific Ocean on fish, birds and turtles before washing ashore in the Marshall Islands.

Riding said he was in meeting with people from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when news came about Alvarenga, who had washed up on the southern-most part of the Marshall Islands "wearing nothing but a ragged pair of underwear," Riding said. He only spoke Spanish. Riding learned Spanish while serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Dominican Republic and offered to help if needed.

In this Monday, Feb. 3, 2014, photo provided by the Marshall Islands Foreign Affairs Department, a man identifying himself as 37-year-old Jose Salvador Alvarenga sits on a couch in Majuro in the Marshall Islands, after he was rescued from being washed ashore on the tiny atoll of Ebon in the Pacific Ocean. Alvarenga told the U.S. ambassador in the Marshall Islands Tom Armbruster and the nation's officials that he left Mexico in December 2012 for a day of shark fishing and ended up surviving 13 months on fish, birds and turtles before washing ashore on the remote Marshall Islands thousands of miles away. (Gee Bing, AP) In this Monday, Feb. 3, 2014, photo provided by the Marshall Islands Foreign Affairs Department, a man identifying himself as 37-year-old Jose Salvador Alvarenga sits on a couch in Majuro in the Marshall Islands, after he was rescued from being washed ashore on the tiny atoll of Ebon in the Pacific Ocean. Alvarenga told the U.S. ambassador in the Marshall Islands Tom Armbruster and the nation's officials that he left Mexico in December 2012 for a day of shark fishing and ended up surviving 13 months on fish, birds and turtles before washing ashore on the remote Marshall Islands thousands of miles away. (Gee Bing, AP)

About an hour later, Riding received a request to assist police detectives in communicating with the man. He met them at Majuro Hospital.

Given his story, Alvarenga appeared healthier than expected with a long beard and bleached hair that was matted to his head. He was quite tan and missing most of his teeth. He didn't smell bad, Riding said, but his feet and ankles were swollen and appeared painful.

Alvarenga said he left Mexico with a teenage boy in December 2012 to spend the day fishing. A storm blew their boat off course, and soon they were lost and adrift in the Pacific Ocean.

The teenager died after about a month at sea, Alvarenga said. The man said he survived by eating raw fish, seabirds, turtles and drinking birds' blood, U.S. ambassador Tom Armbruster told the New York Times.

Once near Ebon, he swam ashore.

Officials from various countries have been trying to verify his traumatic account. A Mexican rescue official told CBS News a search for the missing fishermen was called off after two days due to bad weather and heavy fog in the area.

In this Feb. 3, 2014, photo, a man who identifies himself as Jose Salvador Alvarenga, center, gets off a ship in Majuro, the Marshall Islands, after he was rescued from being washed ashore on the tiny atoll of Ebon in the Pacific Ocean. (ASSOCIATED PRESS) In this Feb. 3, 2014, photo, a man who identifies himself as Jose Salvador Alvarenga, center, gets off a ship in Majuro, the Marshall Islands, after he was rescued from being washed ashore on the tiny atoll of Ebon in the Pacific Ocean. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Riding said he was skeptical when he first heard the story.

"It was hard to imagine the trial of watching a friend starve to death and to throw his body overboard. He says that he wanted to die for several days after that, but somehow found the will to keep eating, drinking and living. I just can't imagine," Riding said. "Sixteen or 13 months of surviving is mind-blowing and pretty unbelievable. But after meeting him, I don't think the amount of time matters. He lived to tell about an incredible ordeal, one that most people wouldn't. I'm just in awe and happy that he'll get to go home soon."

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