Travel Personalities: Correspondent Mariana van Zeller

Paste Travel talks to the war reporter and Travel Channel host.

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Mariana van Zeller is an award-winning correspondent who has reported from hotspots like Syria and Nigeria. Now Zeller, who is the co-host of Travel Channel’s new show, Breaking Borders, will travel to embattled zones around the globe to gather people from all sides of the conflict for amazing meals and passionate discussions in search of common ground. Her partner on this mission will be chef Michael Voltaggio.

Setting the stage for a heated first season, the series premiere will bring together an Israeli and Palestinian over a meal at a Jewish settlement in Palestinian territory and airs March 15 9 p.m. ET/PT.

Paste Travel recently spoke with the seasoned traveler about the new series, the risks she’s taken, her dream vacation and what she never leaves home without.

Paste Travel: What has been the most moving meal you’ve had for the series so far?
Mariana van Zeller: The last episode we shot was in Cambodia and we had a victim of the Pol Pot regime; his father had been shot during the Pol Pot regime and we had someone sitting at the table that had worked for the Pol Pot regime. So, I asked the victim how he felt sitting at the table with a man who once worked for the regime that killed his father and he started crying immediately. He said, “we have to live with it, we have to learn how to forgive.” But he also said that if he had been in this situation a few years ago, he would have jumped across the table and put his hands around the man’s neck. Then we turned to the person who had worked for the regime and he said he didn’t need to apologize, that the regime hadn’t done anything wrong. As he was talking, the victim sitting next to me had tears rolling down from his eyes. He couldn’t believe that after so many years this man didn’t think that he had to say sorry. It was incredibly emotional.

We also had an amazing meal—a very different meal—that was all about forgiving and understanding in Northern Ireland. We took two people, one a catholic and one a protestant, who were once in jail for essentially trying to kill each other. We brought them back to this prison for the first time since they’d been released Michael cooked the meal at the prison, which we ate there, and the men gave us a tour of the prison. They showed us the reception area and where they were given identification numbers, pointing out that this was where they were stripped of their names and became just numbers.

PT: How do you hope this show will help eradicate international conflicts?
MZ: Breaking Borders is about, more than anything, communication and conversation. The best lesson I’ve learned from doing this show is that when there is a breakdown in communication, conflict starts. Communication is what sets us human beings apart from other beings in this world. So, going back to the origins of these conflicts, sitting these people down and having them share their personal stories and bare it all in front of people from the other side has been an incredible opportunity. It’s challenging for a lot of guests because it is emotionally grueling at times, but after every single one of the dinners we’ve had, the feedback from the guests has been positive. They are so thankful; they really think it’s made a difference in their lives.

PT: What has been the scariest place you’ve traveled to on assignment?
MZ: Soon after I graduated from Columbia University grad school, the war in Iraq started. I was a young freelance journalist with no experience in conflict zones but I wanted to be close to it, so I moved to Syria. I didn’t tell anyone there I was a journalist because you aren’t allowed to be there without a permit. I befriended a Syrian guy who came from this little town on the border between Syria and Iraq and he told me that all his childhood friends had crossed the border into Iraq to fight against America. A lot of them were killed, but those of them who survived and came back were considered heroes. I asked him to take me there. I spent a few days there in the community talking to some of the militants. This was the first time there was a growing insurgency in Iraq, and this area used to be al-Qaida territory. There were several moments during interviewing that we were chased by what we believed were the Syrian secret police or people with some affiliation to a terrorist organization. One time when we were driving into the desert to shoot crossing the border, a car suddenly started coming toward us and we were sure it was the Syrian secret police to arrest us for illegally filming in the country. It was a very funny scene; I got so nervous that I started thinking, “what are we going to say we are doing out here in the dessert? OK, I am going to say I really had to pee,” and I pulled my pants down. And then it was actually nothing. But it was the beginning of my career as a journalist and it was really nerve-wracking. I learned a lot of lessons from that.

PT: Your new show blends food and travel. What is your favorite foreign dish?
MZ: Sri Lankan food, which a lot of people think is the same as Indian food but its not. It’s incredible and it’s a pity that there aren’t more Sri Lankan restaurants around. And Middle Eastern food, I’m crazy for all the mezzes. Middle eastern mezzes and this Sri Lankan dish called the egg hopper, which is a pancake topped with eggs and other toppings and served for breakfast.

PT: While you travel all the time, you aren’t vacationing. How would you describe your ideal vacation?
MZ: Anywhere that involves my husband and my 4-year-old son. Anywhere the 3 of us can be together is good. My husband is a journalist as well, and while we love beaches, we can’t sit for that long. If we go to a beach destination, there needs to be something else we can do there as well. I need to be around interesting and different people and cultures. I got the opportunity to travel to Sri Lanka when I first started out as a journalist. I was hosting a travel show and I got to see the tourism side. It’s a really incredible place; it has the beautiful beaches, exotic flavors, the amazing different cultures and again the incredible food. So, that’s at the top of my list.

PT: What’s one place you haven’t been to that you are dying to visit?
MZ: Mongolia. Since I was 10 years old I’ve dreamt of going to Mongolia. So much so that I actually have a Google alert set up just to see if there are any possible stories I can pitch that would bring me to Mongolia.

PT: What’s one thing you never travel without?
MZ: At least one scarf. I always say scarves are the Swiss army knives for women because there are so many things you can do with them. They can protect you from the elements, you can use them as pillowcases or covers, to cover your head if you are in a religious country. And they obviously add a little style.

Maggie Parker is Paste’s assistant travel editor.