LIANE HANSEN, Host:
Philip Reeves, NPR's correspondent based in New Delhi, usually covers politics, social issues and war. This story's different. It's about a unique individual he recently met, an American who set off on an unusual personal journey which came to an abrupt and painful end thousands of miles away from home.
PHILIP REEVES: Many people in midlife dream of breaking free; Margi Scharff actually did it. She's an artist, based in Los Angeles. She used to lecture in several of California's best colleges. But a few years back, she grew tired of teaching and took off.
MARGI SCHARFF: I began by moving to Mexico and giving up my studio, moving to Tijuana and deciding not to stockpile materials and I just started collecting my materials from the road by my house in Mexico, and making assemblages and sculptures with these kinds of materials.
REEVES: By materials, she means roadside trash: discarded cigarette packs, matchboxes, candy wrappers. Equipped with a jar of glue and some paper, she uses trash to make small, intricate pictures glowing with color, which radiate the culture that discarded it. She calls her work road collages.
Mexico was a success, so she headed further afield to see what she could create with the litter of the East.
SCHARFF: That would be China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Burma, but over a period of five years.
REEVES: In Katmandu, her work caught the eye of the journalist and writer Daniel Lack(ph). Lack made a short film about her, in which Scharff tried to explain the appeal of working with garbage.
SCHARFF: I'm not sure I really have the definition of trash, but it's about taking something ordinary that's there wherever you go and raising it to another level. So I'm taking something that people would think of as trash, but if you think of it, they originally purchased the thing because of how it looked, because of the colors. They bought the cigarette packages because of the colors, or the candy, and then they used it and they threw it out and it was trash. And then I'm picking it up again and saying, oh, wait a minute.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
REEVES: There's no trash to be found in here. This is a spotless, stark hospital room, the latest stop in Scharff's itinerary, and an unexpected one. Her journey's brought her to India. While visiting Varanasi, the Hindu holy city on the Ganges River, she began to feel ill. She moved on to New Delhi, thinking it was just a bout of traveler's tummy, and went to see the doctor. The doctor sent her to a consultant.
SCHARFF: And he, right away, realized that it was not gastrointestinal, that it was fluid, free-floating fluid in my abdomen, which is symptomatic of a more serious disease somewhere in your body. So they, through a series of tests tracked it down to ovarian cancer, stage four.
REEVES: Margi Scharff is 51. Cancer experts give women with stage four ovarian cancer, at best, a one in four chance of surviving five years.
SCHARFF: It was shocking and at the same time not shocking because I knew this was in my family history. You know, I always knew that it was a possibility that I might not have a long life. So in some ways that may have been one of the things that gave me the strength and courage to go out and do these journeys, which many people might find frightening.
REEVES: Many people would also be frightened by the idea of being treated for a potentially fatal disease in a place thousands of miles from home, in this case, Delhi's Dharamshila Cancer Hospital. Not Scharff.
SCHARFF: You know, I was really lucky to land here, if I was going to land anywhere with a terrible, terminal disease like ovarian cancer stage four. And now they found that there's cancer cells in my lungs as well. It's just been an amazing experience. It's compassion, wisdom, sharing of information and incredible medical technology. I feel so taken care of here.
REEVES: Scharff says she's drawn great strength from the sympathy and support of friends back in Los Angeles.
SCHARFF: I think we're going to be able to pay the bills here. I think they're all offering enormous support and everybody's giving what little or more that they can.
REEVES: She hasn't given up. She intends to carry on working on her book about her journey through Asia, which combines her writing with her road collages.
SCHARFF: If I can stay alive, keep my spirit alive in the creative sense, that will help extend my life a little longer as well
REEVES: That spirit shows no sign of flagging. If it one day does, Margi Scharff says she's not afraid.
SCHARFF: My life has been full. I've lived a thousand lifetimes, really, really. So, I'm not afraid of death and if you've been to Varanasi, you learn right away that death is not death. It's just, it's just an extended journey. It's just another kind of journey. You're just moving on to the next journey.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.
HANSEN: Pictures of Margie Scharff's journey, her art and how she makes it, are at our website NPR.org.
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