Three years ago, Gilka Reinert Ribas was one of 3 million tourists visiting Niagara Falls, far from her home in southern Brazil. Her friends, she says, threw in a trip to Old Fort Niagara that left her with a camera full of pictures and some impressive memories.
Last week, Gilka was back at the fort -- clad in an 18th century dress, up to her elbows in the makings of pease porridge and salt pork, and learning how to command some forts of her own.
"Last week, I was a cooker in the French Castle," the 28-year-old Brazilian said with a hint of pride and a charming command of the English language. "I was learning how to cook 18th century food."
The recipes will come in handy, back home. But they won't be as handy as the organizational and administrative skills the Brazilian government and her bosses at the Federal University of Santa Catarina hope this summer in Youngstown will be for the woman who is helping develop educational and tourism programs at four island forts off the coast of South America.
Mrs. Ribas -- Gilka, already, to the Fort Niagara staff she joined June 10 -- will spend six months exploring every aspect of the running of a major historic site and tourist attraction.
"As soon as I go back, I'm going to start working to try to do the same that they do here, because they're very, very organized," she said this week. "Every time I go outside and talk to someone, I'm getting more ideas.
"The people here are helping me a lot -- they're very friendly, and they're keeping me very busy so I don't miss home."
Mrs. Ribas blends well with the young costumed crew that provides living historical interpretation to visitors to the 264-year-old fort. Donning the costume of a young woman of the fort's early years was one thing, though, and talking to the tourists was quite another.
"I was afraid of doing that," she admitted, smiling at the thought of surprising fort visi-tors with her Portuguese accent. Now, she adds, the first question may be historical -- but the second invariably is, "Where are you from?"
The inevitable third query -- "What are you doing here?" -- gives her the chance to credit the fort, Brazil's Navy and Department of Historical Patrimony, her university and the scholarship programs of the Fulbright Commission and Brazil's Educational Exchange Commission for the chance to learn here.
The training program, a first for restoration in Brazil, also should benefit some key coastal fortifications along that nation's southern coast. Built about the same time and along the same European plans as Fort Niagara, the fortresses of Santa Catarina have been under university stewardship since 1979 but only recently won major restoration funding from the Bank of Brazil Foundation.
"Right now, we have a project to restore four of them," Mrs. Ribas noted.
"The forts were very important for Portuguese people, to stop the Spanish from conquering more land in South America," she said. "It is important that we be able to show our children."
In 1988 she joined the federal university staff near the state capital of Florianopolis and started organizing tours of the campus for high school students.
When she visited Old Fort Niagara, she adds, "I took several pictures and I went back to Brazil very impressed. Six months later they asked me to work on the forts -- and I dragged out all my pictures, to show them."