The Prince Inside Our Unassuming Guide

I had my first conversation with a prince the other day. I actually knew him for about a week before I learned of his royal heritage. Daniel da Costa is a prince of 10 tribes in Ambon, an island in eastern Indonesia. His father is the king of the tribes' 200 subjects. One day Danny will become king, a position for which he has been groomed his whole life.

He has trained his body and emotions as a black belt in karate. I ask him, as we watch a preview for a new Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, if he thinks he is a better fighter than Van Damme. He watches for a moment and replies, "I think, yes." Danny has also trained his mind and tongue to speak 10 languages.

Danny even has all the symbols of Indonesian royalty: He carries an Ambonese bandanna, which bears the traditional pattern of his Suli tribe, and he is the guardian of an ancient sword. The sword, he explains, has a magic spell cast upon it that causes anyone who touches it to be forced to murder someone.

Then how is the sword transported from place to place? Danny tells me that there is another spell that can lock the sword's powers and enable it to be carried harmlessly. He goes on to explain that one's emotions lock and unlock the sword. If the person touching the sword is angry, then the sword's curse is released. I nod and wonder what the Christian church, to which Danny belongs, thinks of "magical" swords.

At the same time, I have observed that here in Indonesia religion seems to blend well with traditional beliefs. Not all beliefs, though. Danny tells me that his people were once ferocious warriors who presented an enemy's severed head, rather than an engagement ring, to the women they wished to marry.

As exotic as all this sounds, it is inevitably a misleading portrait of Prince Danny.

For one thing, Danny was not born in Ambon, and has visited his kingdom only three times. His father was born there, but no longer lives in Ambon. King da Costa lives in Salatiga and runs his kingdom by fax, phone, and the Internet. The tasks of running a kingdom have also changed a bit from medieval times, particularly since Ambon became one of many kingdoms to join the Republic of Indonesia in 1945.

King da Costa does not make royal proclamations via e-mail or levy taxes on hardworking farmers (the Indonesian government handles that for him). The king's purpose and authority amounts to overseeing marriages and presiding at ceremonies. Since he lost the right to levy taxes, the king cannot afford to fly back and forth for each wedding and festival. When he is needed, the tribes pick up the cost of his air fare. He is also the only king I have encountered who has taken a job to support his royal family. (The king of Ambon is secretary to the rector of Satya Wacana Christian University.)

As for Danny, he is also completely contemporary. Rather than robes, he sports a faded gray Chicago Bulls T-shirt and worn blue jeans. He graduated from Satya Wacana as a tourism major, which is how I got to know him. Danny was a tour guide for my college's study abroad program. And as cosmopolitan as his accomplishments sound, they should be qualified: All but two of Danny's 10 languages are native Indonesian ones. And even though he's a master of karate, he told me he cried all day when he lost three pairs of Nikes on one of his trips to Ambon.

Most ironic of all is that although Danny is next in line to be king, he plans to abdicate the throne to his younger brother and focus all his energy on managing his cousin's new restaurant in Jakarta.

And as for the murder charges Danny would face if he killed a tribal enemy with his ancient sword for his fiancee, it turns out that the Ambonese people ended that tradition in prehistoric times. Danny da Costa is free to propose to his girlfriend in any conventional manner he chooses.

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