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Nomadic couple, formerly of Highland Park, selected by Airbnb to travel world for free

Ben Sandzer-Bell and Peta Kaplan start their journey next month by visiting their sons in Chicago, then to Africa and beyond where they’ll stay for free at Airbnb locations. More than 300,000 applied for the opportunity. Twelve were selected.

Ben Sandzer-Bell and Peta Kaplan in Sri Lanka.
Ben Sandzer-Bell and Peta Kaplan in Sri Lanka. The couple, formerly of Highland Park, was selected by Airbnb out of more than 300,000 applicants to stay for free at Airbnb locations around the world for a year.
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Drop them in a crowded market, in a country they’ve never visited, where they don’t speak the language — and Ben Sandzer-Bell and Peta Kaplan are in heaven.

Fourteen years ago, after their fourth son graduated high school, the couple sold their home in Highland Park, rid themselves of most possessions and began living a nomadic lifestyle that led them all over the world.

“After raising children and really being an anchor for them I was really excited to have a completely different experience of being on the road and not worrying about children,” said Kaplan.

They’ve been doing it ever since and are riding out the pandemic on the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico.

So when the opportunity arose to take part in a program in which Airbnb chooses 12 applicants to stay at lodgings the company provides around the globe for a year — entirely free — they applied along with 312,000 other people.

And the lucky couple was chosen for the “Live Anywhere on Airbnb” program.

All they have to do in return is tell Airbnb about their travels to help the company improve the experience for others who might want to try life on the move.

According to the couple, a key piece of advice for anyone interested in their nomadic lifestyle: Don’t let worrying steer your life.

“For example, it’s incomprehensible to most Americans not to have health care insurance, and yet we found for 14 years that every time there’s been a health care issue, we do like everyone else, we go to the local hospital or doctors and take care of it. This fear-based ‘but what happens down the road’ thinking is not something that drives our decisions,” Sandzer-Bell said.

It’s worth noting that both husband and wife have a built-in international perspective on things.

Sandzer-Bell, 61, grew up in France, and his work as an aerospace and climate change mitigation consultant has brought him across the world. And Kaplan, 64, a school psychologist and artist, was raised in South Africa. Both are American citizens.

Between the two, they speak five languages.

“But language is less important than the feeling of wanting to connect with people, and we’ve found overall that people are good,” said Peta, who uses her camera as an ice breaker by asking strangers if it’s OK to snap a photo.

The first thing they do in a new land is visit the open-air market where locals shop.

“You can observe the culture very quickly, whether things are chaotic or quiet and subtle. It tells us a lot on how to behave or not to behave,” Sandzer-Bell said.

Ben Sandzer-Bell and Peta Kaplan traveling several years ago in Asia on a motorbike.
Ben Sandzer-Bell and Peta Kaplan traveling several years ago in Asia on a motorbike.
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Their 22 years in the Chicago area stays with them not in the form of a Cubs hat or Smashing Pumpkins T-shirt — but in their ability to remain calm under pressure, the couple said.

“There’s something about the Midwest, there’s a can-do spirit where you deal with whatever comes at you without too much drama, and that’s something that’s valuable in travel, the fact that we don’t panic,” Sandzer-Bell said. He pointed to a number of experiences, including front row seats to a coup in Thailand and a typhoon in Vietnam.

As for where the couple will end up after their Airbnb adventure: “Who knows?” Kaplan said with a laugh.

Anyone interested in keeping tabs on their travels should check out their blog at greenglobaltrek.org or on Instagram at @greenglobaltrek.